While the fight towards gender equality is nowhere near over, countries like the United Arab Emirates promise hope. From establishing the Gender Balance Council to employing its first Emirati female astronaut, the UAE’s effort towards reforming the narrative of female oppression and lack of agency in the Middle East is significant.
According to the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report from 2021, the UAE ranked 1st in the Arab world, as well as 1st “in four of the report’s indicators: Women in parliament, sex ratio at birth, literacy rate, and enrolment in primary education.” Similarly, the UAE currently stands as the “most-improved nation in the world for women in parliament,” closing its gender gap by 71.6%. Gender equality is embedded within the UAE’s Constitution that guarantees equal rights to both men and women. Women have the right to access the same employment, health, and family welfare facilities, property inheritance and education as men. Acknowledging the importance of equality in its aspirations to become the “best city in the world” by 2040, referring to Dubai, the UAE has embarked on several public and private sector initiatives positing women in more influential roles in businesses, government, and with a great emphasis in STEM fields.
Women’s representation within the government is significant, holding two-thirds of public sector jobs in the UAE. The establishment of the UAE’s Gender Balance Council encompasses the state’s commitment to enhancing gender equality and women’s rights. The importance of women’s representation in decision-making positions is a necessity internationally promoted by feminists and is evident in the 9 women serving the UAE’s cabinet. Notably, 1 of the members, Shamma Al Mazrui, became the youngest minister in the world at 22 when she served as the Minister of State for Youth Affairs in 2016.
Education for both genders has been a fundamental goal for the UAE, evident in its claims to achieve close to a 95% literacy rate. Nevertheless, Emirati women have strived in several educational parameters, including making up 70% of all graduates in the UAE, and 56% of STEM graduates in government universities. Along those lines, the UAE also broke headlines announcing its recruitment of the first Arab female astronaut, Nora AlMatrooshi, who will train at NASA’s Johnson Space Center this year from a pool of over 4300 qualified men and women from the nation.
While the UAE is a clear pioneer in the Arab world for capitalizing on the importance of gender equality in ensuring sustainable economic growth, it is equally important to take off the rose-tinted glasses when analyzing what seems like a radical transformation in the past two decades.
Much of the above developments are synonymous with the unprecedented economic growth the UAE has experienced in the last few decades. Having an ample financial surplus meeting the country’s essential necessities, the UAE has been able to shift its focus to social equity, education, and healthcare. Moreover, since its inception in 1971, the UAE leaders have propelled visions of the UAE that appreciate factors such as gender equality, seeing it as complementary to economic growth. Furthermore, the size of the UAE’s population, being shy of 10 million people, of whom less than 12% are Emiratis, gives the country a further advantage in terms of the distribution of public expenditure made available to aid in its equitable visions. Therefore, the UAE cannot be applied as a fair model for much of the developing world.
Furthermore, the legal framework based on Sharia law fails to address gender discrimination in its Personal Status law that covers topics including marriage and divorce. As Rothna Begum, a senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, states, there is a need to uproot all “misogynistic laws subjecting women to male guardian authority.” Women, both Emirati and expatriates, remain subject to male guardianship laws in which women require permission, or a No Objection Certificate (NOC), from a male guardian (generally a father or husband) to work, marry, or travel abroad. Such restrictions contradict Article 29 of the UAE’s own constitution, guaranteeing the right to freedom of movement.
Through a developmental lens, the UAE’s forward-thinking leadership subverts orientalist depictions of the Middle East, bound by the West’s artificially constructed binary between the “rational” West (us) versus the “irrational” East (them). Developed by Edward Said, Orientalism constructed social and political polarized binary that homogenized entire cultures and subjected them to stereotypes which reinforced the processes of ‘othering’ and the superiority of the West to the East.
The systemic disseminating of subjective colonial knowledge intended to dominate other cultures and justify “ civilizing missions”, or more contemporary, coercive military and economic intervention can be applied to the issue of gender equality. The Orientalist ideology of the Middle East held by much of the West either rests on denouncing the Arabic world as “exotic” and thriving with “harems”, or alternatively one in which women are publicly oppressed and subject to radical conservative laws that deprive them of any agency. However, as this article has indicated, while there is much more work yet to be done to completely eradicate gender inequality, the UAE devalues orientalist generalizations proving that there is indeed a liberal capacity within the developing Middle East.
While the UAE certainly poses a commendable case study, the global struggle towards gender inequality goes beyond workplace representation and wages. Regardless of the development status, nations all around the world continue to struggle with the implementation of legislation that may threaten the current status-quo – a significant percentage of which includes men in positions of power.
Edited by Helia Mokhber
Aakanksha Mathur is a second-year student at McGill University studying International Development Studies and Communication Studies. She is engrossed in understanding and evaluating global humanitarian issues and the effects of media in politics. Having lived her entire life in a cultural melting pot, Dubai, she has a keen interest in assessing topics via a cross-cultural perspective.