By 1990s, only a handful of Emirati women were taking up jobs that put them in contact with men. One of them was a friend of Sheikha Fatima, Hessa Al Khaledi, UAE’s first woman civil engineer. With Sheikh Zayed’s approval, Sheikha Fatima asked Hessa to recruit the country’s first female soldiers, along with the blessings of the religious authorities.

Arab women worriors


Heraclius the Byzantine has gathered a huge army: there are 200,000 amassed against the Muslims led by Khalid ibn Al Walid on the banks of Al Yarmuk river on the Syrian front. The battle is terrible and, eventually, starts to go bad for the Muslims. More and more withdrew, when, out of nowhere, a tall, imposing knight, enveloped all in black, with gleaming gray eyes, gallops into the fray, sword flying. Heads roll. The Muslims stop their retreat in awe at the reckless courage of this Arab warrior, penetrating the lines of the Byzantines, rushing right into their centre.

Three horsemen charge in behind the knight. One of them has slashed the head of a Greek and holds it high. Inspired, the Muslims turn to fight again. As one body, they raise their swords and follow the black knight into the smoky battle and soon the Byzantines have fallen or run away.

When the battle ends, Khalid walks up to the knight, asking who he is. The knight’s captains close in like a shield.

“I am Khawlah bint Al Azwar Al Kindiyya, sister of Dirar ibn Al Azwar and descendant of Arab kings. I only avoided you out of modesty, for I am a woman of rank and honour. I came to you with the Arab women to strengthen you in your fight.”

One by one, the captains reveal their faces: Alfra, Oserrah and Wafeira, whose fingers are stained with the blood of the headless Greek.

The story of Khawlah is famous throughout the Arab world. She is regarded as one of the greatest female Muslim warriors of all times and inspired the establishment of the first military academy for women in the Arab Gulf, Abu Dhabi’s Khawlah bint Al Azwar Military School.

It all started from UAE’s need to grow its army. In 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, the small nation didn’t stand a chance as its army, mostly staffed by foreign recruits, quickly collapsed. It was then that Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan realised that his country’s army of 50,000 men is not enough to stop a possible invasion.

There was a problem, though. There were no more men. In the early 1990s, the entire UAE population barely reached half a million. The solution came from Sheikh Zayed’s wife, Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak: recruit women!

Since the 7th century, when Khawlah, the warrior, was fighting side by side with men, things have changed. Muslim societies in the Arabian Peninsula became quite conservative, and a woman in public view was often frowned upon. Sheikha Fatima, who herself married Sheikh Zayed when she was still a teenager, used the royal palace to better her education and help Emirati women do the same. In 1973 she started the Abu Dhabi Society for the Awakening of Women and, although her work began bringing a change in the society norm, the change didn’t happen fast enough.


By 1990s, only a handful of Emirati women were taking up jobs that put them in contact with men. One of them was a friend of Sheikha Fatima, Hessa Al Khaledi, UAE’s first woman civil engineer. With Sheikh Zayed’s approval, Sheikha Fatima asked Hessa to recruit the country’s first female soldiers, along with the blessings of the religious authorities.

Hessa took one year leave from her job at the Public Works Department and began the task by studying the Islamic books on Muslim women warriors. The books brought her right to the early days of Islam, when historical evidence showed that women did fight alongside Prophet Mohammed and were honoured for it. The first one was Nusaibah bint Kaab, who fought in the battle of Uhud, being among 10 soldiers who shielded and saved Prophet Mohammed’s life during an ambush.Emirati women warriors

Stories of Muslim women’s battlefield courage abound and Hessa armed herself with all these example before making her argument to the religious scholars.

“I would ask them, if it wasn’t forbidden then, why forbid it now?” she was recorded as saying. Even the fiercest opponents could not argue against the examples of Prophet Mohammed. Eventually, she got the nod, but an even bigger challenge aroused: who would train them?

UAE’s only qualified instructors were men, and that was unthinkable. A male officer couldn’t supervise an unveil woman’s physical fitness, nor could he enter the female barracks to enforce discipline or to touch a woman to help her adjust her rifle.

As it happened, the US Army, involved in the first Gulf War, had just set base in Saudi Arabia. Among the troops were several women, and the UAE asked the US Army if it could spare a few female officers to run a basic military course in Abu Dhabi. Fort Bragg chose 10 specialists, whose average length of service was 14 years.

Before they began work, Hessa arranged for each one of the US soldiers to spend a couple of days with an Emirati family, so they would have some understanding of the cultural background of their recruits.

“I worried they would see me as a Western woman invading their home and challenging their ways. Instead, I was welcomed as an honoured guest,” said at that time Tracy Borum, a military police captain from Nashville, one of the US instructors.

She also remembered feasting on traditional dishes of rice with camel meat, which was “sweet and sort of greasy”, trying on a burqa, the Emirati face masque, which gave her “a weird feeling, like I was trying to hide from somebody” and watching women scent themselves by placing burning incense under their long dresses – “I was sure they set themselves on fire”.

From 1,200 Emirati women who answered Hessa’s advertisements for female volunteer soldiers, she chose 74, from 17 to 31 years old. They also had a varied educational background, from sixth grade to college degree. At first, Hessa tried to avoid selecting women with small children, but that proved impossible. Nearly all of them were married and having young children, but their immediate families were more than happy to look after the kids.


The chosen 74 included seven sets of sisters and the US instructors, who split the group into three platoons, tried separating them to toughen them up, but soon changed their tactics when realising the Emirati women worked better when having a sister’ support.

In fact, many of the usual military training techniques had to be adjusted, to start with, including the fitness training. None of the Emirati women had been physically active and none had spent a night away from their families before. Plus, they were extremely shy.

“At first, I had to go around lifting their chins to get them to look at me,” recalled Borum.

The commander of the US Army instructors, the then Major Janis Karpinski, also talked about her experience during this first training programme.

“The drill sergeants, yelling at them to get in formation or get in the barracks, were just about scaring these women to death. American recruits expect that; they’ve seen all the movies,” Karpinski was quoted as saying.

As the sergeants realised, the Emirati women had been raised to please, so it worked much better to lavishly praise the recruits who got it right, rather than abuse or shame those who got it wrong. Other adjustment that had to be made was scheduling the training timings around the prayers and switch physical exercises to nighttime during Ramadan, after the day – long fast was broken.

In fact, during the month of Ramadan, the US commander and several other instructors fasted along with their troops.

“I wanted to show solidarity with them, but I also wanted to know exactly what their physical condition was. If one of them said she couldn’t make it through a four-mile run, I’d say ‘You can because we can, and we are fasting too’,” said Karpinski.

Except for Ramadan, the Emirati women’s training day began right after the morning prayer, around 5.30 AM, with physical training. This way, the recruits, who were dressed in sweatsuits and had their hair uncovered, could not be seen by any of the male administrators, who arrived later in the morning. Still, they always kept their head scarves tied around their waist, just in case.

Emirati women soldiersOver the five months programme, 15 recruits dropped out of the course. Some couldn’t cope with the presence of the few male administrators in the military school, others missed their families too much. All those who stayed, though, surprised everyone.

The Emirati women began their training with lowered standards. They had never walked to a grocery shop before, let alone complete a forced march. Yet, after a few weeks of hard work, the US instructors got to raise the targets, as the women could easily manage 100 push-ups a day. One of them shed 20 kg of weight! They were all transformed!

When the course ended in May 1991 and all went home, their families would hardly recognise them. One of the Emirati women, Hadra Dawish, said her folks and friends were shocked when they saw her.

“They told me I’d changed too many things, from the way I walk to the way I talk to them. Some liked it. Some, no.”

For a while, Hadra kept sharing her military stories with her female friends. She told them about digging foxholes or standing guard all night in desert camps, but her friends were far from impressed.

“They kept saying to me ‘You have to come out, you’ve made a terrible choice,’ but I knew I’d made the right decision,” said Hadra.

The hardest to convince, though, was Colonel Mohammed Nasser, the commander at that time of the military academy.

“If we had a bigger population, I’d rather see women stay at home,” he said in the beginning of the programme. Gradually, he changed his mind.

“When I see results of 38 out of 40, I have to be surprised,” he said after seeing the final shooting test scores. In fact, he thought the newly built shooting range at the women’s academy were not up to standards, so he ordered the test to be re-done in the men’s shooting range. There he watched in growing astonishment as bullet after bullet hit bang on, in the centre of the target.

The Khawlah bint Al Azwar Military School proved a success. The training programme was extended to nine months and, to this day, it still trains Emirati women warriors.

Emirati women

With extracts from “The Scimitar and the Veil: Extraordinary Women of Islam” by Jennifer Heath and “Nine Parts of Desire” by Geraldine Brooks.

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