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The United Arab Emirates: Women’s Rights in Progress?

May 29, 2010

These days, the world is watching the economic crisis unfold in Dubai and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). There is also another unfolding to watch there: women’s rights.

Say “Dubai” and most in the West think of soaring skyscrapers, sprawling shopping malls, an opulent lifestyle funded by abundant oil reserves and, until recently, a place immune to the global economic downturn. Although the most liberal of countries in the Gulf region, mainstream media often bundles their images of women in the UAE with those from elsewhere in the Gulf – rich but clad in burqas, with restricted rights and mobility. Both reputations are reductionist, belying a diversity and dynamism characteristic of the country and its evolving relationship with women’s rights.

The United Arab Emirates: Postcolonial, Built by Migrants

Many don’t realize that the UAE is a postcolonial country, controlled for 150 years in the 16th and 17th centuries by the Portuguese. Later, the British had a heavy hand in development, setting up financial systems to benefit from the pearl trade while making few investments in infrastructure, education and a legal system. Today, the UAE earns significant revenue from Western military bases, labeled by some historians as the latest manifestation of colonialism.

Currently home to 8.2 million people, 80% of whom are not citizens, the ‘opulent’ UAE has existed since the 1960s when the oil era began. The country is still young, by most definitions, and underpinning the boom is a workforce in which 9 out of 10 people in Dubai alone are migrants. Europeans, Americans and Arabs from other parts of the Middle East populate the professional classes there, joined by South Asians, Egyptians, Somalis, Sudanese, Palestinians, Eastern Europeans and Russians, all of whom predominantly work in the informal, service and construction sectors.

Migrants cannot become citizens of the country, with the exception that non-UAE women married to UAE nationals can apply for a UAE passport after 10 years. In contrast, UAE women cannot pass their nationality to husbands or children and face social and legal restrictions on marrying non-Muslim men.

Women in the UAE not a Monolithic Group

Women in the UAE are segmented into classes based on citizenship status, nationality, religion and occupation, with access to and experiences of rights differentiated accordingly. For example, Emirati women, some of whom are part of the ruling family, enjoy full social benefits, including free housing, health care and education. Still, due to social and cultural norms, single Emirati women generally cannot live on their own. Professional-class migrant women enjoy many of the same social benefits through their employment contracts and allowed more liberal social conventions, including living alone, although are often positioned as outsiders due to race, nationality and religion.

Migrant women working in the informal sectors, particularly domestic workers and sex workers, have fewer benefits and even fewer rights, including employment protections. Meanwhile, spouses of migrant men are differently disadvantaged, with what few rights they have being tied to their male partners. Thus, there is no universal indicator of the status of women’s rights in the UAE.

Does anyone have rights in the UAE?

In fact, the status of women’s rights is embedded in the question of whether anyone truly has rights in the UAE. Although not ruled by an authoritarian, military regime, the country is not a democracy. To date, citizens cannot form political parties or change their government but are allowed to communicate concerns through majlis, or local councils. The government restricts freedom of association and freedom of expression. And some women’s rights advocates argue that as along as UAE legislates through a personal status code and gender discrimination is built into citizenship laws, women cannot have full rights.

Sociologist Rima Sabban, who is originally from Lebanon and now lives and works in Dubai, points out that the legal system is still under development and that an understanding and implementation of rights is a continuous “work in progress.” In some ways, this process is charting new territory as the country navigates between imparting some democratic and universal rights principles while still maintaining power for the ruling family and social and cultural traditions specific to the UAE.

Emirati women themselves are divided on their assessment of rights. Sabban explains, “some UAE women think they have more rights than other women, including in the west. Others think of UAE as a thoroughly patriarchal and conservative, male dominated society. And some others are in between: recognizing the patriarchal system but also seeing the state as very supportive of women’s rights.” This latter opinion is particularly salient in this context where campaigns for any kind of rights cannot exist without the approval of the state.

State-Sanctioned Feminism

In the UAE, all civil society organizations operate under the umbrella of the state, often headed in name by a member of the ruling family, who serves as a distinguished patron. For example, the largest and most visible NGO serving women there, the General Women’s Union (GWU), was founded in 1975 by the wife of the then ruling President. The GWU and its branches in the various emirates serve mostly UAE female citizens through religious activities, cultural events, health education, social programs, domestic violence shelters and collaboration with federal ministries. NGOs serving migrant communities are often located outside the country, with some local organizing efforts done through church groups.

Political scientist Leila DeVriese explains that UAE has “a state-sanctioned feminism” in which agendas are heavily guided by the government. Consequently, as Sabban explains, “civil society organizations don’t bargain with the government for the well-being of society.” This has differential impact on women in different social groupings.

Among those most benefiting from the state’s support are Emirati businesswomen. Over the last decade or so, the UAE government, partly to increase its local workforce’s role in shoring up economic development, has done much to promote the advancement and leadership of Emirati women in the business and information technology sectors – funding education, forming businesswomen’s associations and supporting dedicated leadership training for women. Unsurprisingly, many Arab businesswomen are frequently quoted in the local and foreign press as saying that women there have all the opportunities available to them and just need to step forward.

Some of the women quoted also point out that they can and do “step forward” in ways that are consistent with fulfilling their roles and responsibilities as wives and mothers, which they see as having gone by the wayside in feminist movements in the West. These sentiments are at the heart of tensions between feminists within the Arab world, some of whom are weary of having ideas imposed upon them by outsiders about what women’s empowerment means and looks like and others feminist there, who point out that traditions don’t have to be immutable and need to shift with the times.

Few Protections for Migrant Women

Meanwhile, migrant women, especially those in the informal and service sectors, including domestic workers and sex workers, still struggle for basic rights and resources. As non-citizens, they are not entitled to social welfare benefits. Moreover, the UAE system of employment ties an employee to her employer in terms of rights, which usually results in few protections. Since no specific laws exist, when violations occur, there is no legal recourse. Human Rights Watch, which has done extensive research with migrant women there, has documented a range of abuses and rights violations, including confiscation of passports, indentured servitude, non-payment of wages, unsanitary living conditions, poor safety practices and physical and/or sexual abuse.

Sabban points out, though, that exploitation often starts in the sending countries and that the UAE government is working with other governments to address this. She says that it is a slow process and that, for now, it’s still up to employers to treat their employees humanely. Zeina Zaatari, senior program officer for the Middle East and North Africa at the Global Fund for Women, explains that governments are sometimes working with each other to facilitate economic needs and gains, and that current conditions are not conducive to protections or rights. This is particularly difficult in the arena of sex work, as prostitution is not publicly acknowledged, and there are virtually no protections for sex workers.

Controversies Surrounding Sexual and Reproductive Rights

While violations of labor rights in the UAE have received much coverage, those related to sexual and reproductive rights are much more clandestine and controversial, including among women in the UAE. Asked about these rights, many, including Sabban, point out that they are “western” and that their framing is not appropriate for this cultural context. Sabban explains, though, that “Arab women are not powerless when it comes to reproduction and sexuality. They have ways of getting what they need through personal support systems and networks. Even though some things aren’t written in rights, it doesn’t mean that women don’t have access.” Meanwhile, there is little research to understand how migrant women experience choices, or lack there of, around reproduction and sexuality.

Zaatari worries that positioning women as wives and mothers rather than as individuals when thinking about women’s rights and letting this lie in the private domain leaves no room for broader social conversations about power dynamics and sexual relationships within institutions of marriage and family. Further, this positioning leaves out experiences and identities for women outside these institutions. She points out that dismissing sexual and reproductive rights as ‘western’ closes doors to understanding if and how women do and do not have choices around reproduction and sexuality and how women’s oppression continues in the name of culture.

In the face of such tensions, questions of rights stand to become even more pressing. The increasing percentage of Emirati women in the workforce is causing shifts in family relations, including a declining number of extended families living under one roof and declining birth rates. The country’s continued reliance on migrant workforce – coupled with ongoing neglect of migrant rights – stand not to go away. The coupling of government and civil society, along with restrictions on expression and association, and second-class status of non-citizens raises questions about whether true agitation for and realization of rights is possible.

Sabban succinctly summarizes where the UAE is at: “The issue of rights grows with education, state and civil society development. In a welfare setting like the UAE, citizens won’t push for rights since they feel they are getting most basic socio-economic rights. Now with the economic crisis, we are sort of in the wait and see period.” Indeed, all of the women in the UAE – citizen and non-citizen – are in a wait and see period.

Cross-posted at AWID

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