An popular Arabic saying goes: “A woman is half the society.” It is often quoted in literary pieces and speeches across the Arab world to signify that a society is not complete without the pivotal role that women play within it. That has very much been felt in the UAE where women’s empowerment in the past, and in the present made a huge impact in the society and will continue to do so in the future. Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, stressed women’s important role when he said:
“Arab women make up half our community. They are sometimes better than men. Today, they are rising to greater heights in our society and are able to achieve goals within our communities. They will only grow.”
In the past, women in the UAE had a major role in taking care of the family while their men were away for several months pearl diving, fishing or trading overseas. Many women worked as traders, making handicrafts from palm trees and selling them at the markets to support themselves. After the output of oil in 1958, women’s role within UAE society gradually expanded and they assumed more major roles.
The importance of women participating in the work force as well as in their home was also acknowledged by the late president, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. His wife, Sheikha Fatima, currently heads the General Women’s Federation and continues to promote training, education, and advancement of women’s status. Sheikha Latifa bint Hamdan, wife of the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, demonstrated great support for women, ensuring they received a solid education, and so did wife of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Sheikha Hind bint Maktoum bin Juma Al Maktoum, who is also an active campaigner for greater opportunities for UAE women.
The UAE’s Constitution reflected this strong belief in women which empowered them to assume their rightful place in society by guaranteeing that they have equal status to men, the same legal rights, claim to titles and access to education and even the same right to practice professions as men. Undoubtedly education played a huge role in the advancement of women in UAE. Female university graduates represent today 70 per cent of the total number of graduates in the UAE – among the highest worldwide, and more than 70 per cent of Emiratis in federal higher education institutions are women.
There are many examples of Emirati women who challenged the norms and worked alongside their male counterparts. They became business owners, ministers, parliamentarian and pilots ; they also gained access to the judiciary system and diplomatic corps. In fact women in UAE nowadays make up two-thirds of the government workforce. To name a few, HE Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al Qasimi made history in 2004 as the first woman to hold a ministerial post, Kholoud Al Dhaheri was appointed as the first woman judge and Maryam Al Saffar, was the first Emirati woman Controller of the Dubai Metro.
Capt. Al Hamli, UAE’s first female pilot attributed the success of Emirati women to the UAE rulers. In an interview she pointed,
“UAE leaders have encouraged women to work in sectors which were restricted to men. The leadership has had great confidence in the capabilities of women, who make half of the UAE society, to take up major challenges and to assume senior positions”.
Emirati women proved themselves in the other fields such as sports; they challenged themselves by reaching high summits and finish lines. Elham al-Qasimi was not only the first UAE but Arab woman to reach the North pole, while Nahla AlRostamani is UAE’s female Formula1 driver.
The UAE made huge steps to advance women and boost their contribution to development. No wonder it ranked first in the Middle East and North Africa region in having the narrowest gender gap, according to the World Gender Gap Report 2013. The UAE continues to demonstrate its commitment to empower women through supporting stronger roles for them to attain while maintaining tradition and culture. Emirati women are making their mark in every field, they will continue to grow and prosper and will surely break down any barriers that come their way.