In the US, I was constantly bombarded with questions about the women of my country and their treatment. "Is it true you can have as many wives as you want? Don't your women have to walk 10 steps behind men? Your women aren't permitted to drive, right?" Although some questions were simple to answer, or even ignore, the truth was I did not know much about the role of Emirati women in my country's society and how they were treated.
Upon returning to the UAE, my first observation was the great number of young Emirati women in the workforce. During the process of my Emirati reinstatement, numerous mandatory trips to government entities revealed throngs of Emirati female employees. I later discovered local women make up an impressive 66 per cent of the public workforce, where they are not limited to menial jobs and can now be found in police, military, judicial, diplomatic and ministerial posts. All with the absence of an official quota system. Although more prevalent in the public segment, UAE women are also present in the private sector and in fact own and run numerous establishments. I discovered the country boasted the largest number of businesswomen in the region, with the Emirates Business Women Council laying claim to 11,000 members.
At a recent Emirates Foundation forum discussing young Emirati women in the private sector, speakers highlighted the obstacles to increasing local women's numbers among the private businesses, such as misconceptions of the sector, a lack of understanding of what these jobs entail and the fear of lower wages, longer hours, less job stability and shorter maternity leave. But what was encouraging was many of the present public and private entities are working jointly on, or have already implemented plans to reach out to the women of the UAE, so their numbers would swell in the private sector.
Emirati women's voices were also much more evident in all mediums of media. I routinely heard, viewed and read their comments and opinions on and in local radio, TV and print. When sitting at a recent majlis discussing the environment of the UAE, where all attending were expected to contribute, it was rewarding to see the microphone disappear into another room and hear an eloquent and educated Emirati female opinion coming through the speakers.
Visiting universities across the UAE, it was clear these advancements were set to continue through the apparent discrepancy in female and male enrolment. On mixed campuses, abayas routinely outnumbered kanduras and it was always harder to find parking spots outside the female campuses of the segregated universities than it was in the corresponding male parking lots. In fact, according to one report, at 77 per cent the UAE is registering the highest rate of females in higher education in the entire world. The UAE's Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research reports that 62 per cent of students are enrolled in higher education and 70.4 per cent of total graduates are women.
But none of these momentous developments could have transpired without the basic foundation: the support of women from society as a whole. Even though I was not an American and did not share some of its citizens' skewed perceptions of women in this region, having lived abroad and not been back to my fatherland for so long, my view could not help but be affected by the stereotypes of the media and the misinformed portion of the society. What I found on my return was a deep respect for women in general and Emirati women in particular. I found Emirati men courteous towards their fellow women at every turn, holding doors open so they may walk in front rather than behind them, keeping their respectful distances at all times. When communicating to women, I found the men of the society put them on a pedestal rather than second-class citizens as many, including myself, were led to believe.
In aspects of the country's laws, just as in the US, the Constitution of the UAE guarantees women enjoy the same legal status, claim to titles, access to education and choice of employment as men. Where the UAE distinguished itself from America was providing women with separate and more private sections, rooms and lines in any government establishment. Although this could be viewed by many as unfair segregation, many find this to be very advantageous and dignifying. A friend recently told me she enjoyed this benefit, as the shorter female lines allowed her to complete government tasks in a shorter time.
Although I felt I was coming from a place where gender equality was second to none (especially to this region), I found myself in a country where women were respected and admired among their families, peers and in their communities. Emirati women still have significant strides to make in their development, such as an increased presence in the private sector, accessibility to higher-tiered positions and the choice of pursuing occupations traditionally dominated by men. But the fairer half of the population has made phenomenal strides in a short time. Having always been at the centre of the UAE's social development, women are now significantly contributing to the nation's rapid progress in government, the economy, educational and other sectors.
Whatever stereotypes I had of Emirati women's role and treatment have been completely dispelled. Having had my eyes opened to the realities on the ground, I am much better armed to answer questions such as: "Are women in your country allowed to go out?"
Thamer Al Subaihi is a reporter for The National and a returning Emirati who grew up largely in the US