ABU DHABI // Women are still not adequately represented in the political or economic life of the nation, with social and cultural factors continuing to act as barriers to their progress, according to leading policy analysts and academics.
And while a change in attitudes was occurring, albeit slowly, women needed to be more proactive in taking up the new opportunities being offered to them, they said.
Soaad al Oraimi, a professor of gender and development at UAE University, said that while government initiatives had created a degree of opportunity for women, social attitudes still presented significant obstacles, particularly in politics.
"The state appointed four women ministers, and nine out of 40 seats in the national assembly last term were reserved for women," she said. "However, women are not pursuing these opportunities."
Eight of the FNC members are nominated or appointed by the state, while one was elected, according to the current system.
With political change occurring across the region, Arab societies needed to be restructured in a way that encouraged women to participate across professions, said Asmaa Ramadan, a research associate in the gender and public policy programme at the Dubai School of Government.
"If there are certain constraints for women to do something, then they have to break the stereotypes," Ms Ramadan said. "We might see an increase in women studying engineering and medicine - but after completing their studies in such fields, not all of them will work, or they might not work in their field."
Many single Emirati women were not in a position to move to another emirate to pursue a career opportunity, said Ms al Oraimi.
"Many women in Al Ain can't find a job in their field once they graduate," she said. "If there are great opportunities in other emirates that would allow these women to succeed professionally, their families won't allow it."
May al Dabbagh, the director of the gender and public policy programme at the Dubai School of Government, said spending needed to be increased in a range of areas to influence policy.
"This includes research, capacity building, and collaborations between researchers and policymakers in order to help build a knowledge base which reflects the needs of people from the region," she said.
In the UAE, where Emirati women account for 28 per cent of the national workforce, women needed more flexibility to enable them to continue their careers, said Rowaya Saif al Samahi, a former member of the Federal National Council (FNC).
"A mother has two jobs, one at home and one in the office," said Ms al Samahi, who has been active in developing policies to support working mothers. "We have made a series of proposals to the Federal Authority of Human Resources that will help these women."
Among the recommendations was amending the retirement law by eliminating the minimum age requirement and reducing the required working experience from 20 to 15 years.
Women who want to continue working needed an adaptable approach, with employers who offer flexible working hours, breastfeeding breaks and nurseries. These were among the proposals made by the FNC, said Ms al Samahi.
"Many companies don't want to take the time or make the investment, but even a small nursery will go a long way," she said.
Some government institutions had begun implementing these recommendations, with the National Identity Authority, for instance, now offering opportunities for part-time work, and the Ministry of Education recently introducing nursery facilities.
Women's advancement in education and the workforce needed to be accompanied by changes in the legal framework, and in particular the Personal Affairs Law governing marriage and child custody, said Anisa al Sharif, the head of the social development unit at the Executive Council.
"The UAE has signed a number of UN conventions in this regard, but we need to translate these into mechanisms and policies," she said. "For change to materialise into relevant policies, [it] must also come from society."
Key issues regarding personal status and citizenship rights, which only allow Emirati males to pass on their citizenship, were beset by social resistance to change, said Ms al Dabbagh.
Officials noted the sensitivity of the subject, and drew attention to its ties with religion, but said that change was happening.
They pointed to the Sheikh Zayed Housing Programme, which offers mortgages to Emiratis, and was once available only to men. Since 2009, the programme has been offered to women, including those who marry non-locals, are divorced or widowed.
"Women are supported in terms of health, education and shelter regardless of their personal status," Ms al Samahi said. "Change is happening - but in stages."
Experts agreed that while improvement was still needed, it was now up to women to take advantage of the opportunities available.
"Women need to work to empower themselves from within," said Ms Oraimi. "The government is playing its role, it's time for women to start doing something for themselves."
Case Studies: Women of Substance
Asma Dad Mohammed is a mother of five and a full-time paramedic with the Dubai Corporation for Ambulance Services (DCAS). She is the first woman in the country to supervise an ambulance shift.
"I always had a passion for helping people," she said. "And the minute I saw the promotion for this opportunity in the newspaper I immediately decided to sign up and take the courses."
Ms Mohammed, 33, enrolled in a three-year emergency medical training programme at Dubai Women’s College. But her journey into saving lives was not easy. As a women, she faced many social challenges.
"At the college, people would look at us as though we were from another planet," she said. "Girls would ask how I could work with men without wearing an abaya."
Even her husband faced rejection from his family, Ms Mohammed said. "They would ask him how he could let me pursue this job and how I would manage my time with my family."
But none of these hurdles stopped Ms Mohammed.
"The night before the final exam I delivered my last child," she said. "The next morning I still went to the exam and I scored the highest among three batches of women who were enrolled at the time."
Ms Mohammed said she refused to allow stereotypes and preconceived notions define her role as a woman.
"Some men find it difficult to listen to a female authority figure," she said. "And many will not accept it. But eventually they will have to, because I’m not going anywhere."
Muna al Hammadi has never had any reservations about asking for her family’s permission to pursue her career, which she does out of respect for traditions and Arab values.
"I see this form of attachment to family values as a good thing," Ms al Hammadi said. "I went to study in Egypt, but my parents were fully supportive."
Ms al Hamadi, 28, works as a pharmacist at a healthcare centre in Sharjah and is planning to enrol in a masters programme in a year or two. She said that having a bachelor’s degree was not enough and that postgraduate studies were necessary to be competitive in the market.
"Emirati women today have a readiness to work and most of the women I know who are my age have a career, but so do many women who are my mother’s age," she said. "My mother has worked as a teacher for 23 years."
The young Emirati said she would like to become a university professor, and said she thrived in an academic environment. She would also like to see more initiatives to help women balance family life and career.
"Any woman who is successful in her life is my role model," Ms al Hammadi said. "We can make progress in achieving women’s rights when each of us addresses our role as a woman in society. We should be considerate of one another and the challenges we face ... there should also be less family pressure on women to get married at a younger age."
The IT Programmer
Hind al Ali got her first computer when she was 11 and quickly began to test each key. The IT programming student said she could express herself through technology, and despite not having internet access at home until the end of her first year at college she managed to convince her father of the merits of studying programming.
"My father was not too keen to have internet, so we were not connected at home," Ms al Ali, 21, said. "I explained to my father that programming is a demanding field and that I will have a good career at a reputable company. When I told him the advantages, he encouraged me ... It is important to have my family’s blessings, because I am more comfortable with their acceptance and support."
Ms al Ali, an Emirati, expects to graduate in June from the Higher Colleges of Technology in Sharjah and is optimistic that she will find a suitable job in her field.
"Most of the girls in my programme get hired quickly because the courses are really challenging," she said. "Women today definitely have better opportunities and there are always new areas of study introduced at universities to enable them to specialise in various fields."
The Business Owner
Aisha Mazrou, 32, says she receives many surprised looks when she tells people she is the chief executive of her own firm, Tamim Audit.
"When people hear of an Emirati running their own business, they are impressed," she said. "When they hear that a local woman is running her own auditing firm, they are even more surprised."
Ms Mazrou, who is from Sharjah, said her father was her constant inspiration. After graduating from Dubai Women’s College with a higher diploma in accounting and a bachelor’s degree in applied business sciences, Ms Mazrou worked with her father at the Al Tamim group of companies, where she explored many industries such as shipping, the oil trade, frozen food and construction.
"My father wanted me to use the knowledge and skills I’ve learned from my specialisation," she said. Ms Mazrou, one of the first members of the Emirates Business Women Council, obtained her trade licence in 2002, although her firm has been active for only two years.
"I felt I needed corporate experience before I opened my own company, so I worked in accounting at the airport free zone for four years."
The Dog Trainer
It is clear that Fatma Ebrahim has forged a bond with Maggie, the police dog she has been assigned to work with.
The 30-year-old Emirati sits on a patch of green at Dubai Police Training Academy with the nine-year-old dog by her side.
"I have always loved animals, from when I was really young – and I have a dog and cats," Ms Ebrahim said. "I never imagined that I would be a dog trainer, but I do feel like I am distinct for working here because we do not see many Emirati women in this field."
Although Ms Ebrahim has been on the police force for nine years and has received training as a criminal investigator, she said that she asked to work with police dogs because she knew she would enjoy it.
"My family have been encouraging from the start and they do not mind that I am in this profession," Ms Ebrahim said. "I would tell Emirati girls that they need to be confident and they can do anything that they set their mind to."
* The National