Daphne Selbert (Part 2)

Dean of Library

By Marjorie F. Eddington

Categories: Education

Daphne Selbert continues her story, explaining what it was like to work at a university dedicated to the education of women in the United Arab Emirates. In the interview, she explains the risks these women take, and she shares insights into their culture and their devotion to their religion. Read on to learn how she became friends with some of the Arab women and how education is impacting their lives.

How did you decide to go to the United Arab Emirates?
I had been working as a librarian in the U.S. Midwest for 19 years. One night, I picked up an ad in The Chronicle of Higher Education for "adventurous librarians" to be part of Zayed University, an English-language based university serving the women of the Emirates. My son was out of college and on his own, so my husband Jack encouraged me to apply. When offered the position in August (the first day of classes at my institution), I requested that I defer acceptance until the end of the Fall Quarter because of ongoing obligations and a commitment to the institution that had been very good to me.

On New Year's Eve of 2000, my husband and I flew from Chicago to Abu Dhabi to begin a three-year contract. When we arrived in the very modern city, we were put up in a 5-star hotel until we could move into the apartment they provided us, which also included a generous furnishings allowance. Everything fell into place beautifully. I was eager to be a part of the experiment of educating women in an Arab country.

What was it like working at the Zayed University for women?
It was a real adventure and cultural experience. I worked in Abu Dhabi until 2003 and then in Dubai from 2005-2008. All women dressed in abayas (long black coats) and shalas (head scarves). Many were totally veiled. For the most part, women wore shalas made in such a way to cover their faces if they saw a man. The reward for getting a degree from ZU was great because, in theory, they obtained an American degree, which made them highly desirable for employment.

But the risk was also great. Students had two years of a pre-baccalaureate program to move from Basic English to English language skills that would support academic learning. If the student was not able to pass the TOEFL (later the IALTS) exam successfully, her college career was over. She could not change her mind and transfer to the Higher Colleges of Technology or to the National University where instruction could be in Arabic. Her only recourse, should her family resources allow it, would be to attend a private university. Initially, there was a high failure rate, which was discouraging to all. Over time, the language programs modified, and the English language entry test score requirements were raised.

How did you help support the students at ZU?
Students generally had never been exposed to libraries (as there are few public libraries in the UAE and even fewer school libraries) or reading. Very few students had been encouraged to read for pleasure. To provide a transition to reading academic materials, ZU libraries maintained Learning Enhancement Centers with graded reading materials to help students first learn to read in English and to support their pre-baccalaureate program and reading and writing English. We also worked with faculty to build collections, provide reference instruction, build information literacy in the students, and meet academic needs.

ZU had something unique in the country—unfiltered access to the Internet. On campus there were no forbidden sites because Sheikh Nahayan (Minister of Higher Education) stated that unfiltered access was a necessary part of education. Off campus, in our homes, things were different. Etisalat, the national telecommunications company, filtered much of the Internet. Quite often we would encounter a blocked site, with an indication that the material on the site was culturally inappropriate.

How is providing an education for women impacting the women and/or their communities?
The UAE highly values education and the education of women. These women are expected to go out into the community and work to become leaders. But this expectation can be at odds with the expectation that women marry and have at least six children to increase the proportion of the Emirati population in the country. Also, the choice to go out and work is not their own: it depends on the man who is in charge of their lives -- their fathers, brothers, husbands. Some women expected (or were told) that they should work in a female-only environment.

When I first started working on the Abu Dhabi campus, few of the graduates were working--and most often they chose government jobs where they could go home at 2:00 p.m. to prepare meals for the families. When I left Dubai seven years later, the university was publishing statistics saying 70% of the women who were seeking work were able to be employed -- and this was in both the public and private sector. A measure of Zayed University's commitment to educating women who would be leaders were the Women as Global Leaders Conferences held for students from all over the world. I attended one conference in Abu Dhabi and one in Dubai and found both inspiring. An indication of national commitment to women as leaders is reflected in reorganizations of the ministry that added four women as cabinet ministers.

In many ways, it seems like life for women will not change quickly. Some women are quite comfortable with traditional roles. Emirati women are living in a modern country, a country that seems in some ways more modern than the US! Educating women is definitely making a difference. And it's been a privilege to witness, even participate in, the revolutionary changes that are possible with the education of women.

How did you find life in UAE?
In the Emirates, we were surrounded by the call to prayer. The government made certain that there was a mosque within ten minutes walking distance anywhere in the city. Driving across the desert, there were mosques at every petrol station. Prayer rooms were provided at the university. The girls I helped at ZU, and people in general, were far more religious than the Christian community there. The girls and my employees would even read the Qur'an on their breaks. There was a tremendous commitment to studying and sharing the Qur'an. One of my students gave a colleague and me the Qur'an and attempted to teach us how to read with proper chanting.

Some of the mosques had open sessions where volunteers went over Islamic beliefs and procedures for prayer. Women prayed separately or in their homes. I had an encounter with a man who'd written about Islamic Jerusalem, a city which he explained was founded as a home where all religions were welcomed. He had all the Arabic texts that related to that. There were sections where there were churches, but no Jewish synagogues. They accept Jesus as a prophet, but not as the "Way shower," since the final word came with Muhammad. The UAE had a state religion, Islam, but other religions were accepted. There were even sections of Abu Dhabi and Dubai that housed churches of many faiths. It was rather like the concept of Islamic Jerusalem.

Did so much emphasis on the religion affect you?
Interestingly, both my husband and I found it was hard to consciously devote time to Bible study, as was our usual custom. In a country devoted to prayer 5 times a day, in which one saw many people reading the Qur'an in leisure moments, we found it difficult to focus on Bible Study. The two of us decided that the call to prayer had to be our call to prayer and to study. We focused specific time on Bible Study. Our church has Wednesday evening meetings where people share healings and other ways God has touched their lives, and we were able to be included in such meetings via email. We found that this concentrated study helped us work through an assortment of challenges--and we could not have been more grateful.

Is there anything you appreciated in particular about life in the UAE?
One aspect of life in the UAE that I especially treasured was the communication I had with Arab women. I found that these deeply religious women were eager to discuss religion from a metaphysical point of view. It was interesting to see the strong connections between the Qur'an and the Bible. Many of the same Old and New Testament stories appear in both books. There is an acceptance of Jesus as a prophet, but not as the final prophet. There are religious and ethical values that are similar. The Allah of Islam is not an anthropomorphic God—Allah is identified through the "99 names for God"—a list of qualities.

It was interesting to talk with women who were Shi'a Muslims and women who were Sunni and to see the differences between them. I found that my experience gave me an appreciation and respect for the religion of Islam, and also gave me a deeper appreciation of my own religious beliefs and background.

I was privileged to become better acquainted with Arab women than many of my western colleagues. In Abu Dhabi, we had a neighbor with a two-bedroom apartment that housed five children, a servant, and her husband. Shaika wanted to learn English, so we'd get together, and sit on the floor where I would eat with her children, and she'd teach me Arabic words, and I'd teach her English words. Most of my colleagues survived quite well without learning any Arabic.

Why do you think you got to know Arabs whereas others never did?
I was raised in Hawaii in a natural multi-cultural society. I learn languages well and am a good mimic, which makes me sound more articulate in a foreign language than I actually am. But I can communicate. I also think that if you love others, you find that love returned in some way. Earlier on in my life, I heard someone tell a story that left a huge impression on me. She said, "Any time you encounter a stranger or someone else, say in your own thought, 'Welcome, son or daughter of God.' Recognize the royalty in every person you encounter." I've found that if I do that and treat those I come to know with respect and love, that respect and love are reflected back.