Dubai-based author Kyra Dupont gets an educational glimpse into the lives of Emirati women
The Dubai-based journalist and author Kyra Dupont has been on a mission to meet and understand Emirati women. She spent 18 months identifying and interviewing dynamic local woman for her new book, published in French and entitled Pearls of the Emirates: Who Are These Women Behind the Veil?
The idea for the project came shortly after Dupont moved to the country from Switzerland in 2012 and noticed an abundance of news stories and articles about local women.
“I realised that Emirati women were on the agenda. There was not one day where they were not mentioned in the news. They were pioneers, achievers, there was a forum, a new law. They were very regularly on the front pages.”
Dupont set about interviewing 60 business leaders, doctors, film directors, life coaches, police officers, lawyers and human-rights advocates, between the ages of 17 and 80. “They are all achievers,” she tells me. “They have proved that they are successful and capable. I wasn’t interested in housewives going shopping.”
On International Women’s Day last week, Dupont, 43, shared her findings at the Alliance Française Dubai. The response, she says, proved other people are just as interested in these “mysterious” women as she is. She has also seen a huge interest in her work from people living farther afield.
“I realised there was a lot of westerners, they didn’t know about these women. They think they are like the Saudis, not able to drive or choose their husbands, they have to cover, they can’t divorce, and they’re not working.”
Dupont describes the progression of women here as a “journey”. While they are still expected to respect the traditions of the country and to pass these traditions through the generations, they are also encouraged to be active in work and politics, she says.
This role remains relatively undocumented: “There is so little written on this region, especially on women, I didn’t find much. There is a void, a gap to fill.”
At first, she says that she was too shy to ask very probing questions. But a visit to the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding changed all that. “We talked about arranged marriages, polygamy, why they were covered, divorce. Later on, I had women talking about rape, sexual abuse, child abuse and dating.”
Her interviewees included Sarah Suhail, one of the founders of Ewa’a Shelters for Women and Children, who told her that attitudes to domestic violence have changed over the past five years. “Even professionals in education, they wouldn’t want to talk about this subject. There was denial of the fact this problem existed here.”
Other stereotypes about polygamous marriages, for example, are no longer necessarily relevant to today’s women, Dupont says.
“It can be too expensive and as women are working, they are more financially independent. A lot of women I have met were not in favour of polygamy. One of them said to me: ‘Do you really think I would accept to be the second wife?’ I didn’t know I could talk so freely.
“I tried to be broad and talk about all the subjects in a woman’s life: work, studies, family, having children, rights, discrimination, culture, transmission of values and traditions.”
Her first interview was with Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi, founder of Kalimat Group International publishing. “When your first interviewee is a sheikha it gives you a sort of visa to meet the other people. The second interview was Fatima Sharaf, founder of the Hello Kitty Beauty Spa. After this I would approach people with a speech to convince them to be part of the book.”
Most of the women she approached were keen to talk – with a few notable exceptions. “One of them told me: ‘What is your problem, you western women being so fascinated by us?’ She is a great character and this temperament makes her interesting.” Dupont included this interview in the book.
“People just want to know who they are, how they live and what they think. Are they really empowered? They are very good at marketing and I wanted to see what was marketing, and where was the real empowerment.”
As long as women maintain certain elements of their traditional roles, Dupont says, their progression is supported.
“As mothers and spouses … they have to transmit local and cultural values – as long as they do that, they can study and they can work. They have a leadership who really believes in that and has really put them in front.”
Mitya Underwood is a senior features writer at The National.
Updated: March 12, 2015 04:00 AM