They say the only constant is change itself. The 1990s are a world away from where we stand today in the face of another new decade. Things that were in a grey area before are a surefire thing today among many Arab women, including whether to attend university.
Despite my being excessively shy, when I began considering higher education, I had wanted to experience dorm life and move to Al Ain University, where my older cousins and others in the extended family had gone. I was crestfallen, however, when Zayed University opened in Abu Dhabi in 1998. My dreams of life with fellow students in the dormitories evaporated. Now, I could be dropped off at the campus in the morning and driven home again in the evening. No communal dining room, no common reading room. My father didn't see the point of his precious daughter going to Al Ain University, when one was right here in the capital.
To say I had developed any friendships with my university-appointed "advanced English group" would be very far from the truth. I was and still am quite withdrawn. I had gone to a modest government school, whereas many of the students in the group had attended private schools and acquired the uncanny habit of speaking English. To each other. At all times. Apparently, speaking English meant you were cool and I'm so far removed from this concept myself that it's funny. There were a couple of professors who picked up on this factor and undermined my presence in the classroom as though they were still acting upon their popularity-obsessed western cultural values. However, I managed to find satisfaction in being solitary. That was what I liked about university the most. Picking up a chocolate croissant, a library book and just reading on a bench, quite alone, under the shade.
One thing was for certain: if Zayed University had started off as coeducational there was no chance in the world of my having studied there at all. I am lucky to have gone when I did. I would not have attended the university as it stands today: two campuses - a women's and a men's - side by side. There are shared facilities, too, such as the library, although men and women used them at different hours. Two separate libraries might be considered redundant and wasteful, but for the comfort of the Muslim Arab student body it is simply necessary.
The presence of men on the Zayed campus is nothing new, of course. Men were allowed to take their master's there from 2004 although there was no contact between the sexes.
But the very idea that men were coming in after hours to study for their master's on a "girls' campus" seemed downright outrageous when we first learnt of it. I myself have been having little luck in locating a master's class that is women-only at ZU's Abu Dhabi campus. And I'm not being extremely picky either: the popular master's in business administration or even the trickier creative writing programme would do. But they are not exclusive to women.
There is no alternative, however, unless I go in for one of the long-distance learning programmes, studying for a master's over the internet, which is not something I'm entirely convinced of, seeing as they lack the stability I associate with studying. My sister had the good fortune of having certain people in her MBA class who somehow guaranteed a women-only class at Zayed. Unless I take a similar vitamin W (i.e., wasta), my chances seem extremely limited in the time being.
Apparently I am not alone in my distaste of this news from the halls of Zayed. Of the almost 2,000 places offered to women this year, 20 per cent of the prospective Zayed students in Abu Dhabi and 25 per cent in Dubai chose not to attend. These are called "no-shows". Last year, the no-show figures were 18 per cent in Abu Dhabi and 22 per cent in Dubai.
The university's vice provost, Bryan Gilroy, was quoted in this newspaper this week as saying there could be a connection between the opening of the male facility in Dubai this year and in Abu Dhabi next year and the increase in the number of female no-shows.
"We are investigating why the female no-show rate has increased slightly," he told The National. "It may well be because there continues to be a misconception that male and female undergraduate students share certain facilities and have the opportunity to mix. This is not the case."
He continued: "Male and female students do share facilities: the library in Dubai for example, but at completely different times. Male and female students do not come into contact with each other at any time of the day, nor will they on the new Abu Dhabi campus."
Still, many families might think that the opening of the university to men is a prelude to further mixing of women and men in the near future. I speculate that many families will think flirting will be easier now that hormonal Emirati youths are bound to meet at the gates, walking to their cars, meeting in conferences or attending workshops and the like.
The "no-show" phenomenon continues after university, unfortunately. Women are opting out of workplace environments if they cannot be guaranteed there is no gender mixing.
Others have been forced to forfeit the niqab when, on job interviews, they were asked if they were willing to give up the niqab to get the job. Contrary to popular belief not all Emiratis are rich and many work extremely hard to support their families, married or not.
Emiratis are still a very traditional and religious people. Because the mixing of men and women is considered haram, it is possible some overly suspicious families will cut any such activity in the bud by not allowing their daughters to attend such places where desegregation seems a matter of time. University is still not seen as a necessity (here and in other parts of the world) and if women and men are allowed to mix, in some eyes, many women might opt to not attend either from personal religious beliefs, family pressure or the fear that suitors might not knock on her door after knowing she had attended a "mixed" university.
It is my sincere hope that the next generation of women - a majority of women, I believe, do not favour coeducation - will not be forced to make a decision I didn't have to make.
Iman Ali is an Emirati national. Raised in Scotland, she graduated in English literature from Zayed University, Abu Dhabi. She is currently writing a novel.