Career-oriented women are increasingly delaying marriage and children - and when they do tie the knot, they know exactly what they want in a husband. Rasha Elass and Anna Seaman report Reem al Muhairi talks confidently of the future she has already mapped out for herself: college, graduating with a degree, finding a job as an aviation engineer. Eventually, she has her sights set on becoming a successful businesswoman with her own Moroccan biscuit factory.
There is apparently no room in her plans for a husband and children. At least, not yet. Miss al Muhairi reflects the changing attitudes of her generation, who are increasingly choosing to delay marriage and motherhood in favour of education, a career and, as they see it, independence and the freedom to express their individuality as young Muslim women embracing modernity while retaining their faith.
Moreover, they seem to consider it their duty to take advantage of openings that were not so freely available to their mothers, who predominantly married and had children early, and ended their education at high school. "We have more opportunities now, more dreams and more belief that we will succeed," says Miss al Muhairi. "If we got married and started families before completing our education, we would be wasting all of those opportunities."
It is a view shared by many of her contemporaries at Abu Dhabi Women's College and in educational establishments across the country. "My mother tells me all the time that I am lucky and that I shouldn't waste the chance to get a good education. She and my grandmother didn't have the same chances," says Hamda Eisa al Karrami, 17. Nouf Ali, 19, a Zayed University student, asserts that she would not contemplate or agree to marriage if she were forced to give up her career.
These young women are imbued with an optimism and sense of their own importance beyond being wives and mothers, within a society that, while adapting to shifting views, still values the family as the foundation of Emirati life. To their peers, it is progress. But for traditionalists, it is a cause for alarm. The Government and social experts have expressed concern at young women postponing wedlock, the erosion of marriage with rising divorce levels, declining birth rates and the rising numbers of unmarried women.
Figures released in April by the Department of Social Affairs showed that 54 per cent of female Emiratis in their 30s are still single. Salim al Mansouri, a member of the Sharjah Consultative Council, went so far as to say society's "cultural norms" were being threatened by the phenomenon. And Abdullah Rashid al Suwaidi, director of the Department of Social Affairs, said the trend was causing concern in his department.
The UAE has one of the highest rates of divorce in the Muslim world, with one in four marriages breaking down, particularly among couples in their 20s. Sheikha Naima bin Yaish, a Moroccan scholar in family jurisprudence, said globalisation had introduced the western concept of individualism to the Muslim world, which was not native to Islamic or Arab culture. Whatever experts and scholars may think, however, the significant shift in young women's perspective on marriage and their role in the wider world seems to be becoming part of the culture.
Pressure to forgo an education in favour of marriage and children is also receding as more parents become aware of the importance of schooling to the future of their daughters, according to a sociology professor at UAE University. Mothers in particular, who often did not have the opportunity to fulfil their educational potential, are encouraging their daughters to pursue their studies. "Pressure is decreasing. Parents now know it's better for the girl to finish her education," said Dr Suaad al Oraimi, assistant professor in the department of sociology at UAE University in Al Ain. "People started taking education seriously, and women are given their rights.
"Development of the country is a priority and parents follow what the Government says. Even the more conservative families co-operate with the state." Fatima al Baloushi, 20, a student at Abu Dhabi Women's College, agrees. "It used not to be acceptable for women to pursue careers like being a pilot or an engineer, but now things have changed and everyone, not just women, is embracing these changes. Our parents are proud and that gives girls like us aims."
A recent highly publicised fatwa stated that fathers did not have a right to stop their daughters from working outside the home if "such work had personal or general benefit to society". This raises the questions of whether the women of Fatima's generation have considered sacrificing a family altogether for the sake of their careers. Most, though, still believe that by marrying later and having fewer children they can achieve a balance between home and work life, particularly as the social infrastructure is adapting, for example, with the availability of childcare services, to make this easier.
"Where women of my mother's age would normally have as many as 10 children, I think I'll only have between three and five. It is easier to manage and will mean that I can continue working if I want to," says Miss al Muhairi. "In my opinion any woman who says that both family and careers are not possible is lazy. All it takes is a bit of willpower. If you are determined and ambitious enough, anything is possible."
Should this bring down the birth rate even further - it fell from 35 per 1,000 in 1970 to 30 per 1,000 in 1980 and only 17 per 1,000 in 2000 - it will only heighten the concerns. The UAE has one of the highest rates of female attendance in university, reaching up to 75 per cent of graduates. The trend is across all disciplines and includes graduate studies and doctorates. While there is a lack of statistics on the percentage of Emirati women who work, a recent study by the Dubai Women's Establishment found that 65 per cent of employees in 26 government departments were women.
Dr al Oraimi, who has conducted research into women in the UAE, also said more of them were delaying marriage for an education and possible career. "With the younger generation, some women don't dream of getting married as much as wanting an education," she said. "It depends on tradition and where they are from in the UAE, but mostly now, a woman in the UAE wants to prove herself. She fights to get to university and puts lots of effort to stay in university and get an education."
Rajwa Salim al Shamsi, 18, sees education as a "weapon". "Marriages may break down, work may finish and money may run out, but education can never be taken away from you. It is our guaranteed support." Miss al Baloushi says it is not just a matter of women supporting themselves but "creating our own identities and breaking stereotypes". However, at the World in a Family conference in Abu Dhabi in May, experts spoke of the need for women to balance career and family.
"Women coming to the marketplace is not a replacement to serving their husbands or caring for their children," said Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, who was speaking on behalf of Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, president of the Family Development Foundation. "We need to restore the family." For many women, college is a stepping stone to further education. It can take several additional years to complete their degrees and doctorates, by which time they find they are already considered too old for marriage.
Officials in Sharjah are also concerned about figures showing a rise in the number of single women in the UAE. The emirate's social services department said 18,000 unmarried girls were receiving its assistance. "Society refuses a woman who is 30 or 31 for marriage. They say she's too old. It's over for her," said Suzan, an Emirati who has never married and did not wish to give her surname. Sheikh Rashid Al Mansori is a relationship coach with expertise in Islamic family science and a director at Al Farha Academy, a privately funded institute in Dubai that holds courses and seminars on marriage and family relationships.
"We have a saying in our tradition: 'Marry off your daughter before your son'," he said. "It might sound controversial to some, but I don't think parents are doing enough to show off their daughters in society. "We hide our unmarried daughters, because we think that's the modest thing to do." Dana Dajani had just turned 30 when she became engaged, and insisted that her fiance accept her views on work and family.
"Initially he said: 'I'm looking for a wife who will stop working when we have children'," she explained. "But I don't want to stop working, so he and I sat down and talked about this. In the end, we both agreed that it is possible to continue working and raise a family, and that it all depends on circumstance. After that, I agreed to go ahead with the engagement." Even if they do get married, young women are not prepared to settle for any less than a good marriage and have very strong ideas about what they want in a husband.
"Instead of controlling me, I want someone to support me and respect what I do," says Mariam al Ketbi, 17, a student at Zayed University. Miss al Baloushi believes men have changed too. "They want to marry a human being, not a chair. They want their wives to be able to do more than just cook and clean." But today, with plenty of options for fulfilling careers that serve the community and society, many educated women find themselves at odds with tradition. They may not have the financial need to qualify them in the eyes of patriarchal tradition to work outside the home, but they are, it seems, more determined than ever to go their own way.