Gender Inequality in UAE: Progress and Challenge

Women in Arabic countries in general and in UAE in particular have always been recognized as those suffering from gender inequality which in its turn leads to discrimination and harassment. Lately, the UAE’s government developed deliberate policy intended to fight against sexism as well as strengthen women’s position in the society, and although the government itself together with the numerous mass media resources claim the policy effective, women in the country and witnesses continue making complaints against gender inequality to the same extent as it was in the past.

To start with, it is important to mention that women account for 49.3 percent of the UAE’s population, so Emirati can be referred to as a male-dominated society. However, women constitute considerable part of workforce possessing huge economic potential which cannot be ignored. While in the past women were mainly involved in hard manual work, for example, taking care of cattle, nowadays UAE boasts about hundreds successful business ladies working together with men on equal basis. Today, more frequently than in the past  one can see female doctors, lawyers and even CEOs performing their professional duties the same as men do. In addition to that, as in many other patriarchal societies, women are dominant in such traditionally female occupations as teachers and nurses.

At the same time, it cannot be overlooked that just as women develop, so does the country. As UAE’s government report claims, such change is possible due to their policy which favored female success. Women are forefront of the work force both in government and private sector. Rapid country development requires more and more qualified professionals, and educated women can offer that. According to UAE’s report, UAE women comprise over 40% of all employees in education, at least 35 percent work in the health sector and approximately 20 percent in social affairs (“Women in the United Arab Emirates,” n.d., p. 6). Thus, women actively contribute to the country’s economy.


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Interestingly, evidence shows it is not particularly difficult for women in UAE, especially in Dubai, to run their own business and even become successful entrepreneurs. As Steimale describes it in his article, some business ladies admit having experienced preferential service and being treated as VIP which may be due to the fact that some people want women to be successful in the society. At the same time, however, it is more challenging for a woman to start the business, because quite often they do not possess the required amount of financial recourses on the initial position. Steimale explains,

“For every successful female entrepreneur there are thousands who would like to start a business but whereas elsewhere in the world they might start in a kitchen, bedroom, or home office, licensing requirements and regulations favor men who generally have more resources at their disposal to comply with the bureaucracy” (Steimale, 2014, para. 1).

A sphere of life from which women in the past were banned completely is politics and public sector. If compared to business, the changes in these fields are occurring much slower. It was only in 2006 that the first woman, namely Dr. Amal Al Qubaisi was elected to Federal National Council. Generally speaking, one can always find a list of female names being the first female to occupy certain position in UAE which in its terms indicates that women in power are still a huge exoticness in the country. “The first female councilor”, “the first female doctor”, “the first female pilot” – all of those holding the above mentioned positions have to go to great lengths to climb a career ladder, but their impact as role models cannot be exaggerated.

According to the latest UNICEF analysis, women representation in politics hardly reaches 20 percent (UNICEF, 2011). The most prominent event in the UAE’s history was the elections in December, 2006. Women’s electoral campaign of that year proved to be extremely effective having given them almost 18 percent of the Electoral College.

It is worth mentioning, however, that UAE’s government stated the establishment of so-called Gender Balance Council which is aimed at supporting female leaders. They believe that female empowerment is important, because it will help to improve female political representation. According to the report, women should be at the forefront of directing change in the region and gender-related policies are undoubtedly more effective when women have themselves contributed to the legislative process (“Women in the United Arab Emirates,” n.d., p. 4).

The legal system has a similar situation. Female lawyers and judges are not only difficult to find, but they also have to fight with gender stereotypes every day in their work life. On the top of that, they often have no other choice but to do double-job – being a professional and a wife or mother. In addition, while performing their duties, female lawyers have a difficult choice to make: either speak in a polite, generally accepted for women manner and jeopardize her comments or stay as assertive as men and be considered aggressive. External representation including style and makeup are also taken into consideration. Facing these challenges, women seldom succeed to become big firms partners. Cases of female judges are even more infrequent. As a rule, women leave their positions to become prosecutors or public employees.

While discussing Arabic legal practices one cannot but mention the origin of the law here which is based on Islamic law. Therefore, the court system is a combination of old Islamic practices and civil courts. This is crucial, because it regulates extremely important issues such as custody, family life, marriage and divorce, where women are mostly at disadvantage. However, UAE claims that women have a strong constitutional and legal protection in the country as UAE Constitution guarantees equality and social justice, childhood and motherhood protection. In support of this idea one can refer to Sheikh Zayed Sultan Al Nahyan, UAE’s founding father’s words, “Like men, women deserve the right to occupy high positions according to their capabilities and qualifications” (“Women in the United Arab Emirates,” n.d., p. 3).

All of the abovementioned achievements would not be possible without proper education. Here, the numbers are striking since over 70 % of universities graduates are women. Furthermore, girls tend to outperform boys in examinations, including such so-called typically male disciplines as math and science (Ridge, 2011). This numbers might be the most obvious demonstration of gender inequality of the previous years, because initially, girls were not allowed to go to school. Although it changed over a course of time, the stereotype of uneducated or poorly educated women in Arabic countries still exists. In addition, women without education encounter higher rates of unemployment if compared to men. Generally, the society plays a crucial role in young women lives. They cannot leave their homes and commute to work, because they depend on their families. Nor can they find a variety of low-skilled jobs to earn their living. It can be inferred that current society creates a system in which it is hard for an uneducated woman to survive. Still, education is the key to women empowerment in UAE as well as other Arabic countries.

Apart from education, work and public life, there is a sphere in which women have always been considered the backbone – family. The greatest change which has happened in UAE is maternity leave. Sooner or later, a woman has to make a choice: either to continue working or to take a maternity leave. However, companies here are not particularly willing to support working mothers. In fact, the rate of maternity leaves in UAE is among the lowest in the world. As the result, women appear to be torn between their jobs and their children. Unfortunately, this has a negative impact both on working mothers and on their babies.

To sum up, UAE demonstrate obvious progress as regards gender policy. While in the past women were excluded from the majority of social processes, nowadays they can study, work and participate in politics equally to men. UAE’s government’s suggests a strategy to give the women the necessary resources needed for their professional life. On paper, they can choose any career path they want. In real life, however, they still have to face numerous obstacles, such as the attitude of the society, the lack of support while starting entrepreneurship, the choice between job and children, etc. However, one can see the progress which suggests that the government developed a relatively grounded policy for women empowerment which will help to combat gender stereotypes and achieve equality.

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