Women in the United Arab Emirates

By Salloum, Habeeb | Contemporary Review, August 2003 | Go to article overview
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Women in the United Arab Emirates

Salloum, Habeeb, Contemporary Review

'THE achievements of women in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in such a short time has made me happy and convinced me that what we planted yesterday will today start to bear fruit'. These words by the enlightened Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, President of the UAE, tell the story of the women in that country. Some quarter century ago, there was hardly an educated woman in that part of the world. Today, women constitute a vital part of the country's development. This is due to the efforts of the President and, above all, his wife, Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak who, for her work in the development and empowerment of women, has won many international awards--the latest being in March 2003 when she was awarded the Athena Award.

The United Arab Emirates, consisting of seven states: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, Ras Al Khamiah and Fujairah, all with capitals carrying the same name as the state, provides a unique experience in nation building. In the annals of world history there is virtually no country that can match the UAE's brilliant example of rapid development. Its skyscrapers, towering to the heavens, landscaped gardens, desert farms and the most modern of schools and hospitals, give no indication that for untold centuries this had been a desert land. Without doubt, when in the future historians write about great civilizations, they will find for the UAE a prominent place in the saga of the world as an illustrious example of rapid development of a land and people--brilliantly typified in the evolvement of its women.

The stimulus for this dramatic evolvement of the UAE women has been universal education. Today, females in state schools outnumber men: 99 per cent of all girls go to school and illiteracy amongst those aged ten and over has dropped to 11.3 per cent. In the field of higher education, more than 70 per cent of the students of higher colleges of technology and 60 per cent of the more than 15,000 students of the Emirates University in Al Ain (the chief institute of higher learning in the UAE) are women. Significantly, at the end of 2002, females occupied more than 57 per cent of University chairs.

Education has meant giving women the means to reason and act independently. Contemporary thinking in the UAE now postulates the idea that by educating a man you educate an individual, but by educating a women you educate a family. UN statistics indicate that the UAE is among the most developed nations in educating females. From a conservative tradition where hardship was the norm, through education, under a benign government whose priority has always been women's issues, women in the UAE have literally blossomed, achieving the highest rate of development in the Arab countries.

Women are encouraged to become highly educated, and there is no limit to their choice of careers. They are taking on new roles as teachers, doctors and leaders. One out of every three doctors, pharmacists, technicians and administrators is a woman. About 20 per cent of the total work force are now women. However, in government the percentage is much higher. In this sector, the country's women form 40 per cent of the labour force--57 per cent of the nationals in the banking sector--and 27 per cent of the decision-makers. UAE women have advanced to such a degree that they are now ready to play a direct role in the decision-making process of the country. Over 80 per cent of the UAE employees within each of the Ministries of Health and Education are women. Many are heads of departments--at par with many Western countries. Strangely, when one thinks of how writers in the West portray Arab women as meek and servile, many UAE women are joining the military and police forces.

Much of the gains women have achieved is due, in a large part, to the First Lady in the UAE, Sheikha Fatima, who is married to a ruler who believes that women are half of the society. Encouraged by her husband Sheikh Zayed, she helped in the establishment, in 1972, of the first women's organization.

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