Last year Noura al Khoori had a surprise for her family. She decided to give up a promising career as an environmental engineer and stay at home to raise her two daughters. Her family expected her to be part of the new generation of young Emirati women who are encouraged to balance motherhood with a career. "I consulted with my friends but not family because I know they'd object to it, and when I made my decision I informed them," says Khoori, 26, shrugging her shoulders. "My husband said it was my choice whether I worked or stayed at home - as long as I didn't becoming a nagging woman."
It is nearly lunchtime and Khoori is enjoying a quiet cup of coffee away from her children, Aysha, two, and Sara, eight months, who are being looked after by their grandmother. It is a rare moment of peace since Khoori quit her job at an oil company in February, but she says she doesn't regret it for a minute. "I know nobody can raise my children better than me, definitely not with the same kind of patience," she says.
Emirati women may be more fiscally aware and keen to embrace the myriad educational opportunities available to them. But tradition still often triumphs when many of them decide to stay home and let their husbands be the breadwinner. A remarkable 70 per cent of Emirati women have university degrees, making them some of the most highly educated women on the planet. Unlike their American or British sisters, they are guaranteed under the constitution equal pay for equal work. They live in a booming economy and companies are keen to recruit them to bolster the number of Emiratis on their payroll.
But this stands in contrast to the fact that less than 30 per cent of women are part of the labour force. According to government figures, the unemployment rate for women is 19 per cent compared with 8.2 per cent for men, despite the fact that an increasing number of women are better educated. It is a conundrum that frustrates Nafisa Taha, the chairman of the International Business Women's Group, a networking forum in Abu Dhabi. "Education is a way to get out of the house, get the learning process going, which is great and it prepares children for a better future," she says. "But they are not taking that step forward (to work)."
So what is stopping women from participating in the labour force in equal numbers to men? Young women are getting contradictory messages about their roles as women at work and at home, says Aisha Bilkhair, supervisor of career services at the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), Dubai women's campus. "We have to understand there is two linear systems," says Bilkhair, an Emirati. "We tell them to be global citizens, learn English and be part of the rapid development of society, but in some cases families tell them, 'We want you to be segregated from men and not take certain jobs because they are not traditional'."
The issue has become so important that the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments, or the Awqaf, issued a fatwa on the matter earlier this month. The fatwa stated that women were permitted and even encouraged to work although their primary duty was to raise children and be good wives. In addition, the fatwa stated that if women chose to work they could not take up "forbidden" jobs. "The work itself should not be forbidden or lead to something forbidden as in, for example, to work as the servant of a bachelor or the personal secretary for a manger where the job requires them to be alone, or the flight attendant on the aeroplane whose work requires her to offer alcohol..."
Family pressure to stay home after graduation can be so strong that the HCT made work experience a mandatory part of the curriculum and parents must sign a form at the beginning of the term agreeing to allow their daughters to do the traineeship. "We have a work experience programme so at least she has something on her resume, she has had a taste of the workplace before she graduates," Bilkhair says. She adds that 75 per cent of students work after graduating from the HCT, but it is not enough as the goal is 100 per cent employment.
But the UAE is not alone in this. In general, only 33 per cent of Arab women work, compared with a world average of 55.6 per cent. According to the World Bank, in 2006 only Kuwait had a labour participation rate higher than 25 per cent in all of the GCC. Some 40 per cent of Kuwaiti women work outside the home because men's incomes are no longer enough to support a family, says Rola Dashti, the chairman of the Kuwait Economic Society, a civil society group. "Now people want private education, consumer goods. There is free housing yes, but there is a 15-year wait for homes. The stigma used to be there, it used to be shameful for a man to have his wife work because people would say he cannot support his family."
The UAE, however, has one of the strongest employment rates for women in the region. In Saudi Arabia, female participation in the labour force is about six per cent. In the UAE, attracting women to the public sector has not been a problem - which is why 65 per cent of Government employees are female. However, only 18 per cent have joined the private sector, mainly due to cultural concerns over integration. The public sector is an attractive prospect because it offers high wages, flexible working hours and an Islamic working environment.
Husbands and fathers feel more comfortable allowing women in their family to work for the Government in part because the Government understands cultural restrictions better than private companies, which are often run by westerners. That is the problem Amna al Banna, 26, faced after starting an eight-week work placement at a private company in Dubai. Her husband, Rashid, was upset when he found out her desk was situated between two male colleagues. After the work placement was finished, he forbade her from working. "When I was at school, I said I'd be a doctor, but I'm afraid of injections so I studied business information instead. It was hard for my husband. He told me not to go to the office or when I graduated I'd have to stay at home. I cried and cried. I wanted to work so much."
Bilkhair intervened on her behalf. When a job came up on the women's campus, she convinced Rashid it was a safe, all-female environment and he finally agreed to allow her to work. "He got used to the idea of me working, step by step," Banna says. "Now I am at the Dubai Municipality. It is a mixed environment, but there is a partition between men and women." Being allowed to work has brought other freedoms as well, she says.
"At first I could not drive either. But when I had my son he gave me permission to drive. He said, 'You are a mother and working woman. You are also working long hours and you can drive too.' Nowadays local husbands are changing their minds." Bilkhair says Banna's problem is common among her students. "I tell my students to negotiate," she says. "I tell them - and it is controversial - to be agents of change. I teach her techniques, to find one person to go to who can have an influence in the family. Go to them when they are in a good mood and give them a sales pitch. Be diplomatic. This is a different time. They want to keep up with what leaders want. Say, 'I am not doing anything haram. I'm still the same person you raised.' "
Samia al Yousuf, 53, says it is up to women to teach their daughters how to draw personal boundaries with male colleagues, but that does not mean work environments need to be segregated. "When you respect yourself, you put your limits and boundaries and people will respect you," says Yousuf, the managing director of the Dubai Quality Group. "This is what I teach my daughters." Her daughter, Fatma Alawi, 19, nods. Alawi, whose ambitions include becoming a CEO, an architect and a stockbroker, says her mother taught her that nothing was stopping her from fulfilling her dreams. "Our mum teaches us to be confident," she says. "There is no one to stop you from your challenges. She teaches us to take every opportunity that comes our way whether it is big or small."
Alawi adds that it is possible for a woman to work with men and keep her dignity and self-respect. "Dubai is becoming great but that doesn't mean we lose what we have," she says. "We stick to our morals from the old days. Men think because women are free they can go to parties, stay up late. We don't shake another man's hand. We don't sit in a closed room with a man alone." Her older sister Ameera, 24, adds that they are lucky to have a strong female role model in their mother because she was one of the first women in Dubai to study at university.
"I work at HSBC as an investment banker and am also a fashion designer. I design abayas," she says. "I'm from a workaholic family where women lead. I can't marry and just stay in the house." Alawi adds girls outnumber boys in university because mothers place a high value on education for their daughters. "It is the same in my family," she says. "Women take priority for an education. The men are all about business. They take care of their investments."
It is easier if you are single because working mums don't have access to good child care, says Khoori. She stopped working because she did not want her daughters raised by a foreign nanny who did not understand Arab culture. "I don't like that concept because they don't have the skills. They are domestic maids and help with the kids on the side. They are usually Asian, they don't have our values, they are not Muslim. Even if they are Muslim they do not have our culture. You don't see many Arabs doing this job and I don't want my kids to have a bad start. My cousin came across a little girl in the playground and she was Arab, she looked so Bedouin but she didn't understand a single word of Arabic. She spoke Filipino."
The issue of child care was in the spotlight recently when the Dubai Women's Establishment said there were not enough nurseries available for working mothers two years after a law was passed to make childcare facilities in the public sector compulsory. However, Yousuf says she is optimistic that this will change. Over the course of 30 years, she has watched more and more women express a desire to work, not just for personal fulfilment but out of a sense of national duty.
"Because our country has given us so much, we have to give back, whether in the public or private sector," she says. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org