The Sand Sisters brave the arduous walk through vast desert stretches.
Women in the UAE are showing that they are not just gentle and graceful, but can be tough as steel if the occasion demands. They not only comfortably dovetail their career and domestic life, they also segue neatly into roles where men used to dominate.
Like climbing peaks such as that of Mount Kilimanjaro, surfing or river rafting – you name it, they have mapped it out: they are showing that they are not the stereotypical weak gender. On the other hand, they are very adept at balancing contrasting roles, like office work and tough turf of the outdoors.
In this context, 60 women from 24 nationalities undertook a gruelling, 120-km journey from Abu Dhabi to Al Ain on foot, which took them five days. The “Sand Sisters”, as they call themselves, annually embark on this challenging trek to recreate the historical, seasonal Emirati migration between the two cities that was carried out by tribes not so long ago.
This experience will be open to men for the first time ever this year. The pilot edition of the Men’s Heritage Walk will begin on Friday, 7 February 2020, led by Emirati Hamad Ghanim. Like the women, the men will embark on a five-day adventure filled with personal growth and cultural immersion.
Under the patronage of Sheikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, UAE Minister of Tolerance, the sixth Women’s Heritage Walk (WHW) came to a close on Feb.4 at a ceremony held at the Cultural Foundation, in the presence of participants and their families.
In his speech, Sheikh Nahyan reflected on the essence of the Walk. “For me, as the Minister of Tolerance, this walk embodies the very best of human fraternity. This journey has led all participants to meet a great number of wonderful people. It has enabled all of you to know one another at a deeper level. You have overcome challenges together. Walking together, in conversation and in silence, motivating and encouraging one another, you have built a strong and diverse community of women. That community is an inspiration to all of us.”
The Walk was organised by Jody Ballard and Asma Sedeeq Al Mutawa. Ballard, the founder, is an American author and clinical counsellor and Al Mutawa is a prominent advocate of Emirati literature and culture who focuses on volunteer work that serves the community.
The WHW not only sheds light on the culture and heritage of the United Arab Emirates, but also focuses on participant health and wellness, strength and leadership, and community building. This multi-faceted journey is often described by Walkers as a life-changing adventure. Since its inception in 2015, over 250 women have already participated, including many from other countries. This year, six women from abroad joined the Walk.
"This experience is something that you’ll always remember, as you really become a team with your fellow Walkers. I did the Walk because I’m moving from the UAE, and I thought it was fantastic to have the opportunity before I left to engage with the culture and heritage of the UAE, learning firsthand how the Bedouins lived,” said Swedish participant Eva Hallberg, 59, who completed the Walk in 2020.
This year’s cultural programme, curated in collaboration with the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi, was filled with extraordinary activities that immersed participants in UAE culture. The Walkers discussed the book Words of the Leader Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, enjoyed a falconry display, and engaged with lectures on astronomy, the Emirati Burqa, Saluki (greyhound dogs), desert sands and more.
Dr. Sheikha Shamma Bint Mohammed Bin Khalid Al Nahyan, Chairperson of the Sheikh Mohammed Bin Khaled Al Nahyan Cultural Centre, visited the camp where she delivered an impactful speech on desert traditions, social cohesion and the value of tolerance between peoples.
The Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi also played a vital role in this year’s event and shared with participants fascinating information about desert flora and fauna. The agency led the group in a ceremony to plant Ghaf trees.
The Walk’s organisers, Asma Sedeeq Al Mutawa and Jody Ballard, said: “This year witnessed the cooperation of many government institutions and organisations to create an experience that the Sand Sisters will never forget. The support that we receive from various entities allows us to continue this unique event annually and improve its quality year on year.”
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