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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 August 2005, 15:34 GMT 16:34 UK
Dubai women storm world of work
By Heather Sharp
BBC News, Dubai

As part of a series about young people in the Middle East, the BBC News website explores how young women in Dubai are overturning a traditionally patriarchal culture to find their feet in the workplace.

Fatma Mohamed Haj, qualified radiographer
Relatives, logic and a little luck helped Fatma convince her family

When Fatma Mohamed Haj, 21, decided she wanted to train as a radiologist, her family objected.

She would have to touch men she barely knew, which is forbidden in the traditional Islamic culture of the United Arab Emirates.

And she would have to work nights in a society where it is frowned upon for young women to be out after 10pm.

But she argued her case and is now seeking her first job.

A UAE national living in Dubai, she is one of a generation of young women at the forefront of fast-paced cultural change.


Dubai's nationals have become a minority in their own land as international expatriates have flocked to the hi-tech, high-rise city which has sprung up in the desert in little more than 30 years.

Despite the high levels of education achieved by women in the UAE, the ratio of female to male participation in the workforce remains low
UAE Yearbook 2005

65% of UAE university students are female
15% of UAE workforce* is female
*Including expatriate workers, many of whom are male
With the job opportunities of a booming economy, a government drive to empower and educate women and exposure to other cultures, Dubai's women are moving in increasing numbers into a wide range of professions.

The newspapers proudly tout the achievements of women firefighters, police officers, business leaders and the much-vaunted Economics and Planning Minister, Sheika Lubna Qasimi, appointed in 2004.

Among UAE nationals it is generally considered inappropriate for women to speak to men they are neither married nor related to in public. All government universities are single-sex.

But contact with male work colleagues is increasingly seen as acceptable.

Our governments are all corrupt and, though there is some change for the better, nothing is really improving
Rasha, Bahrain

Amna Mazam, a UAE national, is a student counsellor at Dubai Women's College. She says 50-60% of their 2,300 students are likely to continue into employment.

The majority of the others do not work because of pressure from their parents or husbands, she says, although some choose to stay at home to raise children full time.

Husbands' views

However, among Dubai students I meet a stream of highly ambitious, determined young women with supportive families.

Several, like business marketing student Maria Hanif Qassimi, 20, say they would refuse to marry a man who would not allow them to work.

"I've worked very hard to have a career, and I don't want to just blow it off," she said.

Nariman al-Rostamani, TV presenter
Nariman, 19, sometimes gets abuse when she's out shopping, but her job has boosted her confidence

Few, like IT graduate Salama, would accept a future husband's demands to stay at home: "It's our religion - what he says, I must do," she says.

Others like Bushra Mohammed Roken, 19, the leader of the student council at Zayed University, would work around such views.

"If he doesn't want me to go out, it's not like I'm in prison, because I could set up my own business from home."

Some young women face painful conflicts, Ms Mazam says, and her role is to help them develop the negotiating skills they need to resolve them.

"I think it is new in the culture," she says. In many families the father is prime decision-maker. "If he says yes it means yes, if he says no it means no - there is no negotiation."

Working wives

The professions that prove most problematic are those involving a mixed-gender environment, or a lot of contact with the public or those from other cultures.

Fatima al-Attar, CEO of Interior Dot Com
Fatima, 26, likes making decisions and says she gets treated with respect when visiting building sites

But sometimes a girl simply arranging for her father or husband to visit a potential workplace can be enough to ease his concerns, Ms Mazam explains.

Views among unmarried young men vary. Some, like IT student Fahad Qahtani, 25, stipulate that they want a working wife.

"I want her to know something about life," he says, joking that if she comes home tired she will not annoy him by chattering about domestic trivia.

He is willing to help with the housework and childcare: "It's the man's house as well. If she has work and she's doing well, she's helping in other aspects and she has the right to get some help from the man."

Many UAE households have a maid, however, and it is not unusual for married couples to stay with the husband's family. "We could always live with Mum," adds Fahad.

Female bosses

In contrast to Fahad, Salim Alakraf, 25, would prefer a future wife to be "a queen" presiding over the home, rather than "a worker".

"If she wants to work, I don't have any problem, but she will be tired. She cannot look after me, the children and the house. After a while, she will lose everything," he says.

Salim Alakraf, 25
Salim would prefer his future wife to be a "queen" not a "worker"
And Mohammed Fahim, 24, says he would prefer a future wife to work in a more "closed" environment like a bank, where she would have less contact with the public than in a shop or hotel.

With UAE national women rising to ever-higher professional positions, their male counterparts are increasingly finding themselves under female authority - traditionally a no-no.

Virtually everyone I speak to points out that attitudes are changing.

"At the beginning, it could be something I wouldn't feel very comfortable with. But after some time, when the lady has proved herself in her position, it becomes normal," says Mohammed Fahim.

And while it will take a while for such attitudes to filter through to the less developed, more traditional parts of the UAE, for men in Dubai the transition is well under way.

"For an Emerati man it can get scary, because women are working so hard to prove themselves. They're doing a very good job and they're giving us big competition," says Fahad Qahtani.

Are you young in the Middle East? How free are women to have careers in your country? Are you balancing work and family? Are you negotiating for more freedom? Have you chosen not to work?

The following comments reflect the balance of views received:

Certainly there are a few 'stars' in the female workforce here who are a shining example for others to follow. But the reality on the ground is UAE women must integrate more into the private sector. Government departments are bursting at the seams with UAE nationals because of the unique benefits (shorter hours, attractive housing pay, higher amount of holidays.) Dubai's success story relies as much on the hard work of the private sector as it does on the government. It's time more UAE national women and men step up, adapt and join the millions.
Charif Wehbe, Dubai, UAE

As a young Muslim Woman living in the UAE and of African origin, i think the opportunities available in Dubai are limitless. It is growing exponentially. The UAE government actually has laws that will guarantee all national graduates are gainfully employed.
Fatymah Tafida, Dubai, UAE

It is people like Um Sarah that make life difficult for mothers like myself who want to work for reasons other than 'bad financial need'. Some women like me actually think they have more to offer their children than just staying home with them, by furthering themselves and using their abilities. Even in Holland, which claims to be one of the most liberal and open minded countries in the world, it is still expected that women will stop working when they have children, and it is completely normal for a woman to quit her job as soon as she finds out she is pregnant. The difference here is women wait until they are 35 to have their kids and then claim it as their right to now stop working, almost like an early retirement. Nobody ever gives a thought to the fact that the children miss out on knowing their fathers who are forced to work more and more hours to pay for the mother's decision to stay home.
Jennifer, Netherlands, ex-UK

I grew up in Beirut, Lebanon and remember being in the minority because my mother worked full -time. I felt as if friends at school and their families looked down on mine because my mother had to work and my father couldn't make enough money to support us. As a woman in Lebanon in the 1990s, you only worked if you had to... It was a sign of your social class and nothing to do with women's rights or religion.
Rana, London, England

It is about time women were being treated on an equal footing to men, these women are very brave to stand up to the country and say they want to be more than a homemaker. Even in the UK it is hard to combine the two as there is a lot of prejudice. Society still assumes that a woman's place is in the home. I just wish more women would stand up and say 'No, I want more, I want to be an equal.
Juliet, Milton Keynes, UK

I would like to formally congratulate all these young ladies on their achievements in their respective fields. Traditionally in Arab countries female careers revolve around public services such as teachers, doctors etc. It's great to see varied careers. I can relate to Fatma Mohamed Al-Haj as I am in a career in London in which there are few Muslim women. The men get a little excited when they see us in uniform, or else they test our tolerance levels. It's all part of the job and I enjoy it.
Shazia, London United Kingdom

Arab societies are not healthy for women's development. The existing laws to protect women remain only on paper. In reality Arab women are treated like merchandise. I am not sure what will free them.
Asmaa, Dubai

My wife is a nurse she worked for seven years. I never had problem with her job until we had children. It's an important and a difficult responsibility to help our kids if we are both working men and women because this task can't be done by robots as cooking or washing clothes. We have only 24 hours by day and our children need more than that.
Abdelouahab, Algeria

There should be no hard and fast rule on whether women should build a career. Since we belong to the 21st century and the world has become a global village, we should have more freedom on decision making, no matter be it in Dubai or in Singapore. After all you only live once, let her decide how she wants her life to be.
Chandra Sing Gurung, Singapore

People in the Arab world need to wake up and respect the women as they would respect their mothers and sisters. I've been to UAE and saw how women are so restricted. Think what women can contribute to their economy if they are allowed to be treated as equals.
Kamal Hussain, Sylhet, Bangladesh

Many people do things which they think are according to Islam. Work is permissible for both men and women as long as the right environment is there. The Prophets wife Khadija was a successful business woman, who asked for the Prophet's hand in marriage. Men should think that if they are not going to allow their wives and sisters to work in a place where other men work, they should consider their own positions of work too.
Shahid, Bradford, England

I'm an expat who is lucky to be working here in Dubai. One of the most shocking things about employment here is the salary differences between race and gender. Maybe when these are more equal it will give a little extra incentive to those looking to enter the world of employment as they'll be able to afford to be more independent. Extra respect should be given to these women who are succeeding during this period of change as, reading the comments already posted, there are obviously many different family points of view which the women may need to overcome.
Amanda Knight, Dubai, UAE

Sultana's comments show the reality for Muslim women - the few women who have independent working lives are the exception. Moreover, what this article glosses over is that Dubai's booming economy is underpinned by a raft of expats, many of whom (the unskilled ones employed for housework or manual labour) are very badly treated by their Arab employers and are discriminated against in the courts. Dubai needs to have more than glitzy buildings to count as a civilised place.
Rustam Roy, London, UK

Arab society is extremely patriarchal and changes in attitude will not occur overnight or within a single generation. It took Western women more than 100 years of struggle before achieving what they have today. It's great to hear these stories of Arab women in Dubai and the progress being made.
Nadia Shamim, London

I like my wife to stay at home and teach my kids good behaviour and Islamic education. If she started working then who will take care of my kids? Women have a job at home and it is much harder than men's work.
Faisal Siddiqui, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia

If you go back to the Islamic history, you find that women used to work and even took part in the wars. Our traditions today in the Middle East are just old traditions which need to be changed very soon and such traditions have nothing to do with Islam. A society without the working power of females is an incomplete society, Education and work for a female are not just good for the society but help the female to develop her personality which reflects on her children too.
Mohamed Alwi, Damascus, Syria

What about the biggest airport expansion in the world - the Dubai International Airport, which is being lead and managed by a local lady?
Jamal al Anani, Dubai UAE

I once heard a psychologist speak on a Christian radio station. The topic was working American women and the impact on her families. Almost 80% of women callers preferred to stay home rather than go out and work. I was fortunate to stay home and raise my children and did not have to work outside to make a living, but if a woman wants to work because of very bad financial need then there should be no problem. But for a woman to want to work because she feels incompatible in comparison to the Western working woman then it is a unwise. Women make 50% of the society and if all women stay home to raise their children then there would be less societal problems. No latch key kids, no day care centres.
Um Sarah, USA

The youth need to progress in leaps and bounds if they really wish to match the Asian expats in technological and research fields. The knowledge explosion has not really penetrated the lives of youth. The sooner we realise this the better and even more so in the era of globalisation.
Ammar Ahmed, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

I'm a young architect in Dubai working with a big developer. I'm a national of the UAE. My family does not accept unemployment, whether for males or females in the family. Only after women become mothers is it acceptable to give up a career. Other Emirate women I work with are very committed to their jobs. Some contribute financially to their pre-marriage families.
Farah, Dubai, UAE

Arab men do nothing in the house, woman must do all of it - they only make children but do not help with them. House work is never done by Arab men. My husband wanted me to stay home all time but I said no and went to work in a bank. I divorced him. We need to change culture or us women will stay slaves.
Sultana, Dubai, UAE

Countries which empower women are known to have grown in status and stability. The knowledge embedded in any human being needs to be harnessed in full measure for any country to be called developed and advanced. History is replete with such instances and these can be seen today in the kind of advancement made by many European and American countries.
Ramaaswamy, Singapore

Dubai has grown so fast and left some brains behind. I think men need to get a life in Dubai. I don't see any problem for a woman to educate herself and build a career. The majority of men nowadays wish to find wives with decent jobs to help them with the rising expenses. I totally disagree with the old mentality.
Buthaina, Dubai, UAE

I completely disagree with the point that it's our religion and we must do whatever it says. To start with Islam never discourages a woman to work. If the wives of our beloved Prophet Mohammad can work and were active in their daily lives then why should we have a problem?
Qaisar Sarwar, Sydney, Australia

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