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.

The push for women’s advancement is from the top, an Australian man who teaches in a UAE women’s college, told Women’s eNews. "The reticence is in the families."

Shamsa, who like most Emirati women wears an abaya, the national dress which consists of a black robe worn over a woman’s clothes, admits she would prefer not to.

"If I had the choice and if it was OK with Islam, I wouldn’t wear an abaya," she said. "We are like any girls in the world. We like to wear nice outfits to go out and do our makeup and do our hair."

Abayas, she adds, are uncomfortable in the stifling desert heat.

Better to Be a Boy

Asked whether she would rather be a boy, she says, of course.

"Men have more freedom. Whenever boys do anything," she says, people say, "’He’s a boy, he can do whatever he wants.’ Men can study abroad, they can go to the moon and come back and no one will say anything."

Nayla Al Khaja, 28, the country’s first independent female filmmaker, said these cultural hangovers are to be expected.

"In any normal society, it takes a long time for people to go through cultural change," she said. She adds that the country has opened up so quickly that "people cannot comprehend what’s going on around them because it’s happening so fast. Forty-five years ago people lived in tents, and now they have elevators in their homes. It’s crazy."

Al Khaja, who at age 18 was prohibited by her family from attending the Fine Arts Academy in Scotland but later went on to study film in Canada, describes a huge generation gap between herself and her parents, and believes it will take three more generations before families treat girls and boys as equals.

For now, Al Khaja is the first woman producing a feature film in the country and runs two production companies, but remains living at home with her family because she cannot get her own apartment.

"It isn’t illegal," she said. "But society wouldn’t allow it."

Kara Alaimo studied journalism and gender and sexuality at New York University. She works in press relations for the New York City Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting.

For more information:

Women in the United Arab Emirates:

United States Department of State’s Middle East Partnership Initiative: