x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Changing the image of women

A group of accomplished Emiratis meet top American legislators to exchange insights and correct misconceptions on the status of women in the Middle East.

WASHINGTON // By anyone's measure, Masara Y Alameri is a successful woman. She earned a master's degree in material science and engineering from UAE University, rose through the ranks of the Abu Dhabi Municipalities and Agriculture Department, and now serves as the leading urban planner for Masdar City.

Last week Ms Alameri set out, along with a delegation of other accomplished Emirati women, on a trip to the US capital, hoping not only to showcase their achievements but change a perception some in Washington have of women in the Middle East: that they are treated as second-class citizens and lack the same opportunities as men. "There are some who maybe have not visited us or maybe not read enough about us to really acknowledge what we are about," said Ms Alameri, who also oversees landscaping for Masdar City and is responsible for ensuring that all its projects are carbon-neutral.

"They've been surprised about the amount of progress that we've been able to reach - the way the woman has been respected, acknowledged, pushed and supported by our leaders." The delegation, sponsored by the UAE Embassy, was billed as the first all-female delegation from the Emirates to visit the United States. The other delegates were Sheikha Hind Al Qassimi, chairwoman of the Emirates Business Women Council; Sheikha Khulood Saqer Al Qassimi, director of the Department for Curriculum and Instructional Materials Development at the Ministry of Education; Najwa Mohammed Alhosani, an assistant professor at UAE University; Shayma Fawwaz, director of international investments at Dubai International Financial Centre; and Maryam Matar, director general of the Dubai Community Development Authority.

The delegation shuttled between conferences at think tanks and NGOs and met two US legislators: Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat and the first woman to be elected as both governor and US senator; and Jan Schakowsky, a Democratic congresswoman from Illinois and a leading advocate of women's issues. Last Monday the delegation met Melanne Verveer, who was appointed by the US president Barack Obama as ambassador-at-large for global women's issues.

"We were impressed by the breadth of fields in which women in the UAE now participate," said a spokesperson at the office of global women's issues at the US State Department. For Dr Alhosani, the meetings with top female legislators offered an insight into "how American women leaders have pushed their way into very prestigious positions". Just 10 months ago, Dr Alhosani earned her doctorate in education from Kansas State University. "When I lived [in the US], I never saw myself as far away from US women," she said. "We share the same interests, the same passion, the same lifestyle."

Women are guaranteed equal rights under the UAE constitution and have made great strides in recent years. Three quarters of graduates from UAE universities are women and there are nine female members of the Federal National Council, according to a government report released last year. Four women serve in the UAE Cabinet and the first female member of the judiciary, Judge Khulood al Dhaheri, was sworn in last year.

Two female pilots recently became the first to graduate from Etihad Airways' cadet programme, and four female fighter pilots serve in the UAE Air Force, according to Yousef al Otaiba, the UAE's ambassador to the US, who highlighted the achievements of Emirati women in a speech last week at the UAE Embassy in Washington. The delegates said they hoped their visit would highlight their progress to an American audience, whose view of women in the Middle East was skewed by frequent news coverage of less tolerant countries such as Iran and Afghanistan.

"Women are not asking for rights in the UAE right now, they are practising them," said Ms Fawwaz. "We've travelled many years ahead of many other countries in the region." "We succeeded in changing some of the impressions and misconceptions about the United Arab Emirates in general in this country," said Sheikha Hind. "We hope we succeeded in showing the right portrayal of Emirati women." sstanek@thenational.ae