Economy/Economic Policy

Families Vie With Boom Economy for Emirati Women

Sunday, April 9, 2006

In the United Arab Emirates a booming economy and progressive government offer women wider employment and educational opportunities. But some young women say traditional attitudes keep them from venturing too far from home.

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Nayla Al Khaja

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (WOMENSENEWS)--As a media student in a Dubai college hoping to work as a spokesperson for the government, Shamsa, 21, is part of a new breed of women in the United Arab Emirates who are joining the work force in growing numbers.

Currently, women represent about a third of the country's work force and their numbers have nearly quadrupled over the past two decades, as the government pushes for women's wider participation in society and the city of Dubai develops into a global center of commerce and media. The country's gross domestic product--a measure of its total output of goods and services--rose from about $39 billion in 1994 to $102 billion in 2004.

Yet, for Shamsa, who asked that her last name be omitted so she could speak freely about her beliefs, opportunities come with restrictions. The country's traditional culture calls for the separation of women and men in all aspects of society except the home, places a premium on women's modesty and inculcates fear of developing a poor reputation.

Before leaving her house, she must obtain permission from her mother and determine whether a female domestic worker is available to accompany her. She is not allowed to go out on her own and the family's Islamic beliefs prohibit her from being alone with their driver, a foreign-born man.

The country's poor immigrants, primarily from India, make it possible for families such as Shamsa's to have hired help. The domestic workers--who are not protected under the country's labor laws and according to the U.S. Department of State generally earn about $109 per month--are shared among Shamsa, her mother and her two sisters, ages 26 and 15, while her three brothers come and go as they please.

Father's Work Permission Required

When Shamsa returns home, she must call her father to let him know she is safe. And while her father has given the requisite approval for her to work in the public sector--where hours and demands are fewer--gaining permission to work in the private sector, where opportunities are greater, would be a tougher proposition.

"They want to make sure I'm working in a respectful environment, where they know the people," she said.

Emirati women described familial and social circumstances that, while often acceptable and agreeable to them, keep them from taking full advantage of the commercial opportunities newly open to them.

At Dubai Ports World, for instance--the company that recently pulled its bid to manage U.S. ports amidst bipartisan congressional protests that such a deal would jeopardize U.S. national security--just 3 percent of workers in the nation are female. By contrast, the government's latest numbers show that more than 40 percent of federal employees are female.

From a historical perspective, Emirati women "have run a marathon in the last 25 to 30 years," said Erin Walsh, a senior advisor in the Department of State's Office of Near Eastern Affairs, who heads up programs to empower Middle Eastern women.

Constitutional and Legal Guarantees

The Islamic country's constitution guarantees women and men equal rights, and, according to government documents, "The basic rights of women are enshrined in the Moslem law" and "the United Arab Emirates is firmly committed to the enhancement of the status of women."

Founded in 1975 "to encourage the country's women to play a full role in society," the UAE Women's Federation, headed by first lady Sheikha Fatima, provides classes and support for women in such areas as literacy, job placement and vocational training.

Yet the pull of the country's economy and government is opposed by the traditional habits of many in the society.

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