I’ve just come back from a trip to the U.A E. (United Arab Emirates) and there are very few places other than Dubai where the the juxta-positioning of two diverse cultures, particularly in relation to women, is more evident or more fascinating.
To the casual observer at least, Dubai, despite recent set backs with an apparent slow down caused by a global recession, still seems to be an economic boom town. The almost sci-fi, other-worldly, Blade Runner, skyline shimmers in the unrelenting desert heat and humidity. Following the discovery of oil in 1966 , the intensity of wealth creating activities in this city state is palpable. Even the fountains dance! Long term ex-pat Sue- Sharyn Ward a founding member of the Dubai International Business Women’s Group with an interesting career and more interesting stories, has first hand experience of the dramatic changes that have occurred in the region since she first moved there in the early 80s.
There is no better place to observe women than in one of their preferred habitats - the shops! The malls in Dubai house unimaginable retail opportunities for most women. Every designer label and brand is within stiletto distance. Local women are seen there in national dress (abaya) very often with only heavily kohl-ed eyes and the tips of their Manolos visible to the outside world. Ex-pat professional women focused on their overseas assignments as career stepping stones, move easily between them, a pashmina thrown over their shoulders in a gesture of respect for local customs. A group of international lawyers told me that there was very little difference between their professional lives in Dubai and any other place in the world they have worked, with ex-pats making up over 90% of the workforce.
The story is somewhat different for local women. In 50 years women have shifted from having an exclusively household focus where their roles were strictly prescribed: among UAE nationals it is generally considered inappropriate for women to speak to men they are neither married nor related to in public. All government universities are single-sex although contact with male work colleagues is increasingly seen as acceptable. But despite an outwardly different type of culture, women are still making their mark, with a record 105 women on the list of 500 most powerful Arabs. Over 70% of Emirate women move into further education from high school and the number of women entering the workplace is increasing significantly, now composing 35% of the national workforce. Life for a traditional Emirati man is also changing, as women push to follow their own dreams. Anecdotally I was told that at corporate training sessions it is quite frequently the women who are more eager to learn and showing additional focus.
- Four UAE cabinet ministers are women—including Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, Foreign Trade Minister, who was on Forbes magazine’s 2007 list of the 100 most powerful women in the world.
- Women form two-thirds of government sector workers. In October 2008, the first female judge was sworn in. Women make up 20 percent of the diplomatic corps.
- Nine women hold seats within the Federal National Council, accounting for 20 percent of the membership. The FNC is a consultative parliamentary body.
- In 2003, for the first time, the Abu Dhabi police trained 32 women to work with the special security forces. The UAE has four women fighter pilots, the first to serve in UAE military forces.
- Women finance one-third of the transactions in the financial and banking sector
It took one MBA candidate I spoke to 4 years to persuade her family to let her move to Europe to study and will move back to her old employer a changed woman. She believes that as a new generation of educated Emirati women emerge, the traditional boundaries will be pushed even further and they will claim their rights in greater numbers. In the context of the time frame, progress for women in Dubai is certainly moving forward.