ABU DHABI // Fatima al Moghani was only 15 when she embarked on a seven-hour trip to reach Sharjah to petition the wife of the Ruler and persuade her to pledge help for her community. That slow journey in an old Land Rover was made in 1975 along the one-lane mountain roads that at the time linked east and west coasts. But however arduous the drive may have been, the teenager had her heart set on securing the means to open a centre for women in Kalba, the isolated fishing village where she lived.
"Me and my teacher were carrying a petition with 45 names asking for the centre," she recalls 33 years later. "My community was very proud of me. At the time no one thought about the women, so I told them to please open a place for women." Now a leading community organiser, women's activist and mother of eight, Mrs Moghani is one of many who express amazement at the changes that have taken place for women in the UAE during the past three decades.
Two years after that coast-to-coast mission, she was one of only three girls in the graduating class at her school in Kalba. Now, nearly half of the pupils registered across the UAE are girls and 75 per cent of students at the UAE University are women, according to a government report. It is one of the key changes, she says, that in a single generation, young women are increasingly choosing to forgo early marriage in favour of pursuing an education. An early advocate of this was Mrs Moghani's own grandfather, who refused to let her marry at a young age.
"He said I was too smart and I had to complete my education - I was very lucky," says Mrs Moghani, who is head of Khor Fakkan's Social Development Centre. "I want to explain to young girls here that they should be happy about what we have achieved. We started from zero, now we see women everywhere." However, despite the rapid advancement that has taken place, there are still isolated pockets of the country where women yearn for the opportunity to work or even for a place to gather.
Today, the progress made by women, and the challenges that still lie ahead, will dominate the agenda when the second Arab Women's Conference opens in the capital under the patronage of Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak. The three-day event will be attended by women's activists, academics and political and community figures from across the Arab world. The wives of several world leaders, including Queen Rania Al Hussein of Jordan, Asma Al Assad of Syria and Suzanne Mubarak of Egypt, will also join discussions on the impact of globalisation on the security of women in the region.
On the eve of the summit, Sheikha Fatima, the president of the Arab Women's Organisation described the event as "very significant" and something she hoped would be a catalyst for "greater dignity for women throughout the Arab countries". "UAE women have made major achievements over the past few decades, thanks to the support extended to them by the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan," Sheikha Fatima told the state news agency, WAM.
"They have been empowered to shoulder their full responsibilities in the process of development, alongside men. They have contributed to sustainable development as well as to economic, social and cultural changes. This contribution has been based on equal rights and duties and within the framework of the teachings of Islam and the tolerance embodied in Shariah law and traditions." According to the UN Development Programme, the UAE ranks 29th in the world under the Gender Empowerment Measure - the highest rating in the region. The recent appointments of Khuloud al Dhaheri as the UAE's first female judge, Sheikha Najla al Qassimi as ambassador to Sweden and Hessa al Otaiba as ambassador to Spain, were proof that women were progressing to the highest positions, Sheikha Fatima said.
There are also women in traditionally male-dominated spheres such as the military and nearly 40 per cent of jobs in the banking sector are held by females. Women have a strong presence in the private sector, with 12,000 members of the UAE Businesswomen's Council, which runs investments worth Dh25 billion. Dr Fatima al Sayegh, a professor of history at UAE University, said she sometimes struggled to come to terms with the "radical changes" that have taken place over her lifetime. When she graduated with her first degree in the 1980s, Dr Sayegh faced pressure not to enter the workforce. She credits her family with encouraging her to pursue an academic career, sending her to the US to study for her master's degree - something which at the time went against the grain.
But, while praising the progress the country has made in many areas, including women's empowerment, she warned that a more cautious approach is necessary. "The social change has been so radical that there is now even a gap between my generation and my students - young women of around 18 to 22," she said. "The changes are in everything, from thought to appearance. Some changes have been positive and some have been negative."
Dr Sayegh expressed concern about the effect of such rapid change on national identity. While only in her thirties, Dr Sayegh feels there is a 50-year gap between her and her students "In some ways, young women are less concerned with national identity. I see they are Emirati only because of what they are wearing," she said. "We all accept and want change, but for some of my students, the abaya is the only attachment to the old society."
More appreciation needs to be shown for the support given by the Government, which provides free education and encourages young women to enter the workforce, an opportunity their mothers were not necessarily afforded, she added. Aida al Azdi, of the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research, said one of the main challenges lay in cementing the significant progress made and not taking it for granted.
"We have become an important part of the workforce very quickly," Ms Azdi said. "The push came from the Government, but also from ladies too. We need to double our efforts now, with more of a push also from girls to play a real role in the future, especially in fields such as medicine, engineering and research." Ahead of the conference, Queen Rania praised the progress made by women in the UAE in their diverse roles as mothers and working women.
"Today, Emirati women are making their mark across many different sectors and many different countries, from wives and mothers and teachers and nurses to ambassadors, judges and ministers as well as key positions in the private sector, and beyond," she said in an interview with WAM. While highlighting the improvements made in her own country and beyond, Queen Rania also addressed the challenges Arab women continue to face, which will be overcome by empowering women.
"For me, the most important thing we can do is to equip Arab women with tools - skills, knowledge, education and work experience - that give her self-confidence, develop her capabilities, and give her choices," she said. "I look forward to the day when each and every Arab girl and woman is empowered and can determine her own path and make a difference in her future and the future of her children." firstname.lastname@example.org