As the UAE celebrates the completion of its inaugural Military and Peacekeeping Training for Women program, Vogue Arabia meets the Arab cadets who have seen their lives transformed.
Dust, sand, and rubble surround the small stone structure while smoke pollutes the air. Visibility is limited. The muffled sound of a woman’s scream confirms that there are civilians inside. Outside, four female military officers quickly scan the combat zone. One signals the others to enter the building. The officers are dressed in military fatigues and carry firearms, yet their calm and approachable demeanor reassures the women they rescue and lead to safety.
The female officers are cadets on the region’s first military and peacekeeping training for women course, which was held at the Khawla bint Al Azwar Military Academy for Women in Abu Dhabi earlier this year. This urban combat exercise is carried out so meticulously, it’s hard to believe that just a few months ago, the majority of these officers had no military training, had never handled a firearm, and many had never left their home countries.
“It was totally different from my duties and responsibilities at work,” says Elham Aloraini, a 26-year-old human resources coordinator from Saudi Arabia. “Initially, I was worried that I would not be able to tolerate the exercises in the desert, but thanks to the support from the women on my team, I did them with enthusiasm.” Aloraini was selected for the course after a request from UAE officials went out to government authorities from six Arab nations, inviting participants with both military and non-military experience to take part.
“The weapons experience, which included dismantling, installation, and shooting, was one of the things that was difficult, but I loved it,” Aloraini continues. “Wearing a military uniform was also new to me – it brought a sense of pride, belonging, and strength.” She was one of 134 women from the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Yemen, who completed the scheme organized by UN Women, the UAE Ministry of Defense and the General Women’s Union, the UAE’s principle women’s organization dedicated to the UAE’s efforts to empower women, under the patronage of Her Highness Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, Chairwoman of the General Women’s Union, President of the Supreme Council for Motherhood and Childhood, and Supreme Chairwoman of the Family Development Foundation.
The course involved three months of basic military training followed by two weeks of peacekeeping training, and is part of UN Women’s efforts to implement the Peace and Security agenda, part of which aims to increase the numbers of women in UN peacekeeping operations. There are currently 5 243 women serving in military and police roles across the UN’s peacekeeping and special political missions, making up just 6% of all uniformed personnel.
“The Women, Peace and Security agenda recognizes that women are critical to the successful prevention, mitigation, and resolution of conflict,” explains Dr Mouza Al Shehhi, Director of the UN Women-UAE Liaison Office for the GCC. “By training these women to serve in both their national security sectors and in peacekeeping operations, we are directly contributing to global efforts to ensure the maintenance of international peace and security.”
The course is the first initiative of its kind. Even more pioneering is that the UAE became the first country to allow its Ministry of Defense to train foreign citizens, covering the costs of all the flights, training, board, and weekend social trips for all cadets. The UAE hosted the pilot scheme as a result of the nation’s close relationship with UN Women, who has one of its seven global Liaison Offices in Abu Dhabi, combined with the UAE’s progressive efforts to advance gender parity in the region, being the first country in the GCC to establish a military training academy for women in 1991.
“We have nine women cabinet ministers in the current government and women occupy 66% of the government workforce,” explains HE Noura Al Suwaidi, Director-General of the General Women’s Union. “This training program, which builds and develops the capacity of women in the military and peacekeeping sectors, has been implemented in close coordination with the Liaison Office to support the representation of Arab and Emirati women within the military sector and UN peacekeeping missions.”
The initiative has been a success, despite initial reservations from the cadets. “At the beginning, I noticed some hesitancy from some of the women to interact with women from other countries,” recalls Dr Mouza. “But within a few weeks, the trainees demonstrated their maturity and let their guards down.” Aloraini explains how her feelings changed: “I felt awkward at the beginning as we are different in terms of characters and cultures, but later on I loved it and I still speak to some of the cadets on a daily basis.” It’s a sentiment shared by Saeeda Thani Khamiss Aldoseri, a cadet from Bahrain: “The women from other countries greeted us warmly. It was a little bit weird because we didn’t know each other.” The 24-year-old Security and Protection Officer at the Ministry of the Interior in the Kingdom of Bahrain soon softened. “We became like a family with members from different countries. With my previous military experience, it was not easy for me to deal with the women, but I managed to gain their trust and sympathy.”
Although the course does not qualify the cadets to serve in their home militaries or take part in peacekeeping operations, many have shown an interest in entering the sector. Administrators will work on making these opportunities more available to participants taking part in the second edition of the course, which will take place in January 2020 and will also be open to applicants from Africa and Asia.
It’s not just peacekeeping skills and friendships that the cadets take home with them. “The experience gave me self-confidence,” says Worod Irshead, 24, a public service office worker from Jordan. “And the feeling that I have an important role in society. Women have proven their role in all areas and demonstrated that their capabilities are not less than men.” Aloraini adds, “This experience changed me completely and my perspective on what I want to do. It built my self-confidence. I realized that I’m a strong woman. My family is proud and their confidence in me has grown.”
The feeling of pride is one that every cadet and their families are celebrating: “My father was very concerned about my participation in the training course,” says Aldoseri. “He tried to prevent me from participating in the beginning. But after completion, he felt very proud of me.”
Originally published in the September 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia