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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

On Emirati Women’s Day and a few other things

Contrary to the belief of some in the West this country is doing well in terms of women's progress, argues Deborah Lindsay Williams
Emirati Women’s Day, on August 28, offers the opportunity to recognise female achievement. Mona Al Marzooqi/ The National
Emirati Women’s Day, on August 28, offers the opportunity to recognise female achievement. Mona Al Marzooqi/ The National

Sometimes I wear a T-shirt to the gym that says on the front: “Feminism: the radical notion that women are people.” A fellow gym-goer once smiled at me and said: “That’s a pretty bold statement.” Truth be told, I still don’t know if the person was joking.

That’s the thing about the f-word, isn’t it? Even now, well into the 21st century, it’s a word that inspires strong emotions. I’ll never forget the student who said to me, a number of years ago, “You’re a feminist? But you’re so calm!” The shock in his voice was palpable.

I just watched the movie Suffragette, about the 19th century campaign for female suffrage in the UK and found myself reminded of documentary footage from the Civil Rights-era South: people being beaten, falsely jailed, hounded by the police, betrayed by the government, all in response to the radical notion that people who had historically been marginalised could move off the margins to the centre.

The movie reminds me, as the cigarette ads used to say, that “we’ve come a long way, baby”. And then again, the movie also reminded me that we’ve still got a long way to go before women are recognised as people in every country around the globe.

Emirati Women’s Day, on August 28, offers the opportunity to recognise female achievement. True, it would be nice, as I’ve written on other occasions, if women didn’t need special acknowledgement. Notice that we never have “Celebrate Lionel Messi Day” or “Flowers for your favourite CEO Day”. But perhaps it’s more precise to say that it would be wonderful if women could receive the same sort of acclaim for their achievements that men do.

For examples of how that acclaim does not happen, we need look no further than the US coverage of the Olympics. Katie Ledecky’s astonishing world record in the 800 metre swim was reported in one US paper under a much smaller headline than one that announced Michael Phelps had won a silver medal. We could also point to the comments made by an excited TV commentator who named Katinka Husszu’s husband as “the man responsible” for her award-winning swims, as if she were some sort of drone-operated pool toy and not an astonishing athlete with unbeatable drive. We could also include on this unfortunate list, the coverage of Ibtihaj Muhammad, who earned a bronze medal as part of Team USA. “Fights with hijab”, read one headline, prompting the wags on Twitter to point out that she fought with a foil, not a scarf.

No doubt you’ve read the spoof coverage of Theresa May’s husband at her first public address as the UK's prime minister, which described what he was wearing (“a sexy navy suit”) in the same breathless tones used for women’s fashion. The description of Philip May’s ensemble was funny because it was attached to a man’s sartorial decisions, rather than a woman’s, a fact that should give us all pause. If that sort of commentary makes us scoff when it’s appended to men, why do we scarf it up when it’s written about women? Let’s not even talk about the French burqini ban, which wraps Islamophobia and sexism into one soggy, appalling bundle.

As an American women living in the UAE, I am asked endlessly by people in the US what it’s like “over there” for women, as if I live on the moon. When I tell them that things here are good for women and getting better, I get confused looks. I point out that women make up about 70 per cent of UAE public university students; that women are being trained as muftiyas and hold seats on the FNC. I tell them about organisations like the Sheikha Salama Foundation and the Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak Foundation, which are integral to the social and cultural fabric of the city and the country.

Women here are, in short, people. It’s a radical notion.

I wonder how long before it will be true everywhere?

Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi