x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A degree and four children … what Gulf women want

Comprehensive gallup poll of 18,000 Gulf nationals finds that women want to be well-educated, but they also want big families.

Women like Fatima Shuwaihi (pictured) are as highly educated as their Western peers, but are more likely to want a big family.
Women like Fatima Shuwaihi (pictured) are as highly educated as their Western peers, but are more likely to want a big family.

ABU DHABI //More women in the GCC with a higher level of education prefer larger families than do their peers in other high-income countries, a study by the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center has found.

Ninety-five per cent of Emirati women aged between 15 and 29 have attained secondary education or higher, but ideally want four children, according to the study, Progress and Tradition in the GCC States, released yesterday.

Research in other high-income countries showed that a high level of education among women was linked to a decline in family size.

Researchers asked more than 18,000 people in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE to share their views on topics including family size and religious pluralism.

They found women in the GCC with four years of tertiary education are more likely than those in other high-income countries to say they want three or more children.

The desire for large families could be because of the country policies that favour and support women balancing work and families, said Dalia Mogahed, the director of the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center.

"Our research suggests women in the Gulf are able to balance work and large families more so than their peers in the wider Middle East, perhaps due to the availability of domestic help and generous maternity leave policies," Ms Mogahed said.

In Saudi Arabia, more than 42 per cent of women with a university degree have three or more children, compared with 31 per cent of Kuwaiti women.

In the UAE, 27 per cent of highly educated women said they had three or more children.

Ms Mogahed said the UAE was an exception in the GCC, where fewer well-educated women were seeking large families.

But the figure is higher than countries such as the US and UK, where only 6 per cent of highly educated women opted for more children.

Susan R Madsen, the associate professor of management at the Utah Valley University who studied how education moulded the perceptions of 300 Emiratis at the Abu Dhabi Women's College, said most UAE women hold on to their family values and traditions.

"Family was clearly the top priority and that did not change through their college experience," Ms Madsen said. She said they were more comfortable than their mothers were in delaying marriage so they could complete degrees, but "spoke of wanting many children, between three and six, but not as many as their own mothers had".

She added: "They felt they could work full time and it was OK for them to hire some help to assist with their house and children at times."

Fatima Shuwaihi, a media and marketing executive at the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation and an MBA student at the American University of Sharjah, said she would wait to complete her education before getting married, but would want more than three children.

"I think having around three to five kids will allow me to take care of their needs," Ms Shuwaihi said. "It's not like before when people were getting married at the age of 18, having eight children but not being able to raise them properly."

She said having three children was culturally accepted now, but no fewer: "Emirati men do not like having fewer than three children and I will have to respect my husband's choice."

Nawar al Shamsi, an assistant producer at a television station in Dubai, said her family size would depend on her financial status.

"I do not mind having four children but this is a calculated decision where we plan about how we will provide for them and educate them," Ms al Shamsi said.

Paul Dyer, a fellow researcher at the Dubai School of Government, said the fact that most women hoped to have only three children reflected a fairly dramatic decline from 1985 when it was seven children.

But Mr Dyer said the relatively high rate of rise in population meant the Emirati child and youth numbers would continue to grow at significant rates. The National Bureau of Statistics recorded a 3 per cent annual Emirati population growth between 2006 and last year.

"The bigger challenge - both now and in the future - will be to ensure investments in education are done in a way that ensures a higher quality of instruction, and provides young Emiratis with the skills they need to be more competitive in the labour market," Mr Dyer said.

Read the Progress and Tradition in the GCC States report here

aahmed@thenational.ae