Members say that while they have not questioned many ministers, they are active in the council's debates and their real work takes place away from the public eye.
Women assert their FNC role
ABU DHABI // Female FNC members have responded to criticisms that they are not doing enough, saying their real work takes place away from the public eye.
In the council's five sessions since the election on September 24, no woman has taken the opportunity to question a minister, though 12 of the male members have done so.
Critics who have focused on this say that the ability to question ministers is one of the council's main supervisory powers. Some of the more vocal of these critics have been other women and previous female FNC candidates, who say they would have been more active had they been elected.
Much of the criticism takes place behind closed doors. A previous candidate, who stood in Dubai, was one of many to request anonymity in complaining about the female members.
"We have been following the council's work through papers and haven't found a significant contribution from women," she said. "The male members are always interacting with ministers, but the females aren't."
The female members point out that with seven of the 40 seats, they account for a sixth of members, so should not be expected to ask as many questions as the 33 men.
They say they have been very vocal on topics such as a recent adoption bill and in defending the right to discuss the country's media strategy. They have been less vocal in discussing bills on topics in which they have little experience, such as the trading of precious stones, they say.
Noura Al Kaabi (Abu Dhabi), who forcefully argued for her committee's right to discuss media strategy during a session last month, said the criticism surprised her.
She said the women's input could be clearly seen in session minutes.
"Going through lengthy session minutes, which record every word - you can find a very good contribution from women members," she said. "People should understand each member has a specific specialisation that they represent in the varied committees."
Ms Al Kaabi said that female members frequently participated in email debates, and exchanged phone calls daily - in addition to the full-time jobs they hold in their home emirates.
"We debate topics via email on a daily basis - on average we exchange 30 emails a day," she said.
Often, she added, female members would raise their arms to speak, but would struggle to be noticed amid the greater number of male members. When a male member was chosen to speak, this could often pre-empt the point of a female member.
"We wouldn't want to mention the point again, so instead of repeating it, we vote with it," she said.
Other members pointed out that participating in debates should be a matter of quality, rather than quantity.
"We must differentiate between helpful comments and commenting on everything," said Dr Mona Al Bahar (Dubai), who heads the education, culture, youth and media committee.
She said it was too early to judge the women.
"The council started very recently - we have not even completed six months," she said. "There is no credibility in these statements."
She said the critics were being "unjust to women" and were not being "objective".
While she admitted that "society expects a lot from us", she said that the criticisms had not increased this pressure.
Indeed, both women said that support at the council and at their full-time jobs had enabled them to juggle parliamentary work with a demanding career - Ms Al Kaabi is the chief executive of twofour54 and Dr Al Bahar is the deputy chief executive of care and rehabilitation at the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children.
Ali Jassim (UAQ), the longest-serving member of the council who was first appointed in 1993, said that he had been encouraging female members to speak more often.
He said male members were sometimes to blame for not making room for female counterparts.
"Previously I sat aside and let female members become head of committees and the secretary," he said. "But now they don't give them room."
Mr Jassim believes that fear of embarrassment sometimes keeps members silent.
"There must be more merging between males and females in the council and they all need to encourage each other," he said. "We hope that they feel more pushed in the future."