x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Unmarried women a ‘burden’ on the state? Not a chance

Statements such as “marriage prevents women from going astray” take us two steps back, says Khalid Al Ameri

The refusal of men to have more than one wife is creating “a financial burden on the country”, according to one FNC member, who made a call to tackle the “problem” of the growing number of unmarried women in the UAE.

The FNC member in question almost makes it sound like men who are devoted to one wife are doing something wrong, whereas I was under the impression that Islam permits, but does not command, multiple marriages. Furthermore, to call unmarried women a “burden” to our society is to define a woman’s contribution to her country through her ability to either take care of a home, bear children or raise the family.

My wife was a stay-at-home mother for almost five years, and I believe that this is one of the most noble, challenging and meaningful roles a woman can have in the lives of her husband and children.

But the contributions of a woman to UAE society go far beyond the boundaries of her household, and deep into the great economic, political and social strides our country has made in the past four decades.

The one aspect of financial burden that could be discussed at some length is the UAE’s unemployment rate. According to a Unicef report, it stands at 8 per cent for males, and 22 per cent for females. Having said that, it would be shortsighted to look at this data independent of other factors. Currently a significant portion, as high as 70 per cent, of students in federal higher education institutions are women. Girls are less likely to drop out of high school than their male counterparts, and girls are outperforming their male counterparts in schools across the country.

What we are now witnessing is a shift in the education gap between women and men and that can only translate into women becoming the main economic drivers of our country.

We are starting to see more of those examples throughout public and private institutions. So I would argue that the women of the UAE have taken matters into their own hands, and whatever the perceived economic burden is, it is pretty much taking care of itself.

A further comment that could potentially rub people the wrong way was this: “Marriage protects the woman and prevents her from falling astray on the wrong path.”

Now I couldn’t agree more that marriage protects women, but it also protects men in the same way by providing emotional fulfilment and warmth. Additionally, numerous health benefits and longer lives have been linked to loving relationships and strong emotional connections with one’s partner.

But to say that marriage prevents a woman from falling on the wrong path gives no credit whatsoever to her ability to lead a healthy, meaningful and respectable life.

If members of the FNC want to label unmarried women as a “burden”, then how about they discuss the emotional burdens being faced by women, rather than the financial burdens being faced by our government?

It is not simply a matter of money, but ensuring that the women of our country have the right support network, guidance and counselling beyond their immediate families.

Furthermore, if we want to talk about direct financial burdens with severe long-term implications on numerous socio-economic aspects of our country, let’s talk about high school dropouts, a government dependent labour market, increasing divorce rates, national unemployment, slow Emiratisation policies, or increasing personal debt among nationals. Do you see the point here?

Women in the UAE are leaders in our region for the proportion of seats held in national parliaments, they are CEOs of local entities, international organisations and family businesses. They represent the UAE at international levels, and in some of the best education institutions worldwide. Married or not, they are anything but a burden.

In fact, they are our most precious investment. Through the wisdom and vision of our leadership, our country has always striven to take the role of women in our society one step forward.

Unfortunately, it is statements involving “financial burdens” and “marriage prevents women from going astray” that take us two steps back.

Khalid Al Ameri is an MBA candidate at the Stanford Graduate School of Business

On Twitter: @KhalidAlAmeri