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Celebrating the Birth of the UAE and What it Means for Female Empowerment

Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, UAE national day

Left to Right: Sheikh Khalid Bin Mohammed Al Qassimi, Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Sheikh Rashid Bin Humaid Al Nuaimi, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Hamad Al Sharqi and Sheikh Rashid Bin Ahmed Al Mualla, 1971. Photographed by Ramesh Shukla

The iconic black and white photo showing the nation’s founding father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, signing the 2nd of December agreement to form the United Arab Emirates in 1971 is one that every Emirati and expat is familiar with. It represents the birth of a nation through the strength of solidarity – a fierce union that will be celebrated throughout the UAE and beyond this weekend. This monumental coalition that took place 48 years ago, combined with the guidance of past and present leaders has been an accomplished display of innovation, modernization, and achievement. Their successes are evident not only in the incredible feats of science and engineering such as the world’s tallest building, man-made islands, the world’s only seven-star hotel and the planned Emirates Mars Mission but also in actions of social responsibility including the UAE’s ranking as one of the world’s largest state donors of foreign aid, and the country’s commitment to sustainable energy with the formation of the world’s largest solar plant. But what this historic image might not show is the contributions made by Emirati women and how the positioning of their gender has evolved in the past 48 years, often through the actions of these founding fathers. In fact, the journey of empowerment for Emirati women has closely followed the overall trajectory of growth and prosperity seen by the United Arab Emirates as a nation.

Sheikh Zayed, General Women's Union

Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan looks over a model of the General Women’s Union building for Abu Dhabi in 1978. Courtesy of Al Ittihad

Shortly after the formation of the UAE, the first women’s meeting of The Renaissance of Abu Dhabi Women Association took place in February 1973. The setting up of a variety of other women’s groups followed, culminating in the establishment of the General Women’s Union in 1975 by Her Highness Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, wife of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, in an attempt to make female employment and gender parity a priority, and much later resulting in the formation of the UAE Gender Balance Council in 2015. But have these efforts worked?

A United Nations Development Programme study from 2018 ranked the UAE highest in the GCC for gender equality and found that the nation had made serious progress in bringing women into the workforce. The report found that numbers of Emirati women in the labor market had risen from just 1,000 in 1975 to 135,000 by 2015, and that more women (43%) now hold bachelor’s degrees than men (23%).

“Our country has always been at the forefront of the region where the empowerment of women is concerned,” explains HE Noura Al Suwaidi, Director-General of the General Women’s Union. “The UAE was the first country in the Arab World and the Middle East to elect a woman as Head of Parliament in 2015, we also have nine women cabinet ministers in the current government, and women occupy 66% of the government workforce.”

So what have been the leading factors for this progression? “Funding, awareness, the provision of opportunities and a shift in attitudes have all contributed to the progress that Emirati women have made, and continue to make,” says Rym Al Falasy, Secretary-General of The Supreme Council for Motherhood & Childhood. “But all of these have come about because our country has been fortunate, since its formation, to have a leadership that is fully committed to the empowerment of women. Their emphasis on the need for women to play a full and equal part in our society has been the fundamental driver of all of the change that has taken place.” And this advancement is seen right from a grassroots level. “In our universities, the opportunities available for women have meant that they now outnumber men,” explains Al Falasy. “In the creative sectors – like media and fashion – women, as well as men, are at the very forefront of invention, innovation, and discussion.”

And as someone who has been able to make fashion her chosen vocation, Sheikha Madiyah Al Sharqi agrees. “The UAE has always inspired a forward-thinking and innovative mindset and I’m proud to be part of a country that recognizes the important role women play in our community,” explains the founder of global fashion label Madiyah Al Sharqi. “The UAE’s strong sense of appreciation for homegrown talent is what inspires the fashion community to thrive and evolve. It is consistently building itself up to be a fashion hub that can compete with other fashion capitals in the world by creating and establishing various platforms and events that encourage young talents to showcase their designs to an international audience. As a female designer, it has been really rewarding for me to have had that strong support system.”

Where the creative arts have flourished, other disciplines such as competitive sport have taken a little longer to embrace female participation, but developments are promising. “Being a woman in sports from the UAE has been very challenging at the beginning of the journey back in 2009 to 2011,” explains champion Olympic weightlifter, Amna Salman Al Haddad. “There were hardly any Emirati females competing in strength sports as it is deemed as unacceptable, masculine or shameful. Now, a decade later, there’s been a lot of initiatives, campaigns, and programs that are encouraging women to take part in fitness activities, and that’s slowly transferring to competitive sports.” Al Haddad who also works as a journalist and motivational speaker commends the UAE authorities but thinks more can be done to encourage women to compete in sports. “Our leaders have a great impact on the changes and their vision for the future of women and the country is a major contributor to the progress. We do not have enough Emirati women aiming for international competition or the Olympics due to the lack of awareness, funding, and sports culture, although there is definitely more interest in fitness activities, as a result of initiatives such as The Dubai Fitness Challenge.”

So what else can be done? Like the union of the Emirates 48 years ago, Managing Director and Founder of ALF Administration, Omaira Farooq Al Olama thinks, it’s women uniting to work together that is the answer. ALF focuses on the training and development of youth in the UAE as well as finding and training divorced and widowed women on how to return to the workforce. “In my organization, we help by making sure every woman that comes through our door has the adequate training they need to go for job interviews and succeed in securing that job. I think the more we are aware that women should stick together and not compete against each other, the more paths we will open up. Women have more opportunities now: they are CEO’s, and are able to help many other women achieve their goals and dreams.”

And that’s where Emirati women stand now, no longer just ‘involved’ in the future of the UAE but leading the way. “I think that we may see more and more women becoming actively engaged in aspects of the country’s development that look to the future,” explains Al Falasy. “Women, for example, are playing a leading role in the organization of the Expo 2020 and are engaged in the planning of the Dubai Future Museum. Women are increasingly active in studies of our environment, both in the laboratory and out in the field.” And that’s always something to celebrate: women leading the way.

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