‘A Chapter Called Women’, by Jillian Schedneck

A spread from the United Arab Emirates Yearbook.

Yasmina tells me that in Dubai, the women’s effort came first, and then the government decided to give them support. I meet her one evening in the Dubai Women’s Club during Ramadan, after her fast has ended. She possesses a loose sort of beauty, with wide eyes and mouth. Her black shelya hangs around her neck, hair falling down to her shoulders. She sips from iced coffee and then smiles.

I am talking to young Emirati women about feminism and empowerment. Anyone who has spent even a short time in Dubai and has read a local tourist brochure or browsed through the English language newspapers would know that Emirati women are important subjects. Headlines boast: Empowering UAE Women, Emirati Women a Success Story for the UAE, Empower Women ‘vital for growth,’ Bigger Role for Emirati Women, Sky’s the Limit for Emirati Women, UAE Women Make their Mark. Emirati women are written about for their groundbreaking roles as government ministers, judges, artists, doctors, pilots, police officers and soldiers.

I contact these young Emirati women through their blogs and Twitter handles; I meet them at art exhibitions, conferences, film screenings, and seminars on Emirati heritage. I take the Metro from one end of the city to the other, then hop into a taxi, to meet at Mirdiff City Centre, a café on Jumeirah Beach Road, a gleaming office tower in Media City. Most drive their own cars, a few have drivers; one takes the Metro. A few invite me to their homes because they prefer not to go out, because they are told they should not want to go out. They are fashion designers, visual artists, filmmakers, journalists, entrepreneurs, engineers, comedians, photographers, researchers, athletes, bloggers, spoken word poets. They are daughters, sisters, students, graduates, Twitter personalities, cultural ambassadors: fashion-forward, addicted to their BlackBerrys, symbols of the nation. Some are shy at first, and I try to put them at ease. Or I am shy sometimes, and they assure me they are pleased to be asked their opinions, honoured to tell their stories. We talk for an hour, sometimes more, until we must return to our own lives.

During every meeting, I pull out a copy of the annual United Arab Emirates Yearbook, and turn to the Table of Contents page, which includes chapter titles such as ‘Oil & Gas’, ‘Political System’, ‘Social Affairs’, ‘Foreign Policy’ and ‘Environment’. These chapters, authored by the government’s National Media Council and aimed at potential tourists and expatriate residents, tell the reader about oil discovery in the 1960s, the country’s windfall, and the 1971 unification of seven emirates into one country, bordering Saudi Arabia and Oman. Chapter 17 is titled ‘Women’. There are no chapters titled ‘Men’ or ‘Children’.

The ‘Women’ chapter opens with a full-page photo of two young Emirati women, wearing the classic black abaya cloak and sheyla headscarf. They stand posed in conversation, Dubai Creek in the background. Inside the chapter there is information about the achievements of Emirati women, particularly those living in the cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. There are records of Emirati women’s ranking in the UN’s Global Gender Measurement Index, including their high literacy rate, education enrollment and life expectancy. The chapter informs readers that Emirati women ‘create a bridge’ between modern life and Emirati heritage, and it states that the government is continuing its strategy of ‘empowering’ Emirati women.

Women are no longer dependent on men.

Each woman scans the Table of Contents until they reach the ‘Women’ chapter. Always, each young Emirati woman, twenty-six in total, nods in approval, says that women are finally being recognised, appreciated, supported. They say their government is telling the world about who they are, and who they are not. They are not sheltered, passive and afraid. They are educated, empowered and thriving. The women tell me that because of this chapter, outsiders will learn that Emirati women are approachable. They are not cut off from communication because they wear black abayas and sheylas. These clothes are chosen, they tell me, not enforced. They have experienced drastic changes compared to Emirati men. The biggest change, they say: women are no longer dependent on men, and this chapter proves their independence. At first glance, outsiders see the UAE’s male rulers, the male ambassadors, the male CEOs. This chapter, I was told, shows that women are just as important.

Despite their overwhelming positivity, I resist these women’s responses. I want them to say that this chapter is demeaning, that they do not need the government to empower them; they are not just another thing, akin to ‘Infrastructure’ or ‘Renewable Energy’. I want them to tell me that this chapter, and the government’s attempts to show the world that they ‘empower’ Emirati women, is absurd. The government is using Emirati women as a symbol of the country’s Western-style development. I want the women I meet to say they refuse to be made into a singular category; I want them to refute the idea that women serve as symbols for any nation, to reject this chapter and what it represents.

Even more than this, though, I want to imagine myself as a young Emirati woman. I want to imagine what it must be like to live among an overwhelming majority population of foreign expatriates and visitors who at times pity me, expect me to be meek, spoiled, vacant and oppressed. My meetings with Emirati women take place during the Arab Uprisings. The women I talk to say that they are grateful their government cares for them, has given them so much, compared to many of their Middle Eastern neighbours. In this way, I can understand their unanimous appreciation for the ‘Women’ chapter. I watch the way they move through their office corridors, navigate the crowded shopping malls, and know that these women, and Middle Eastern women all over the world, do not envy me, a white American woman. To believe in “saving” Muslim women implies my arrogance, the superiority of the West. The women I speak to are not victims or suffering from false consciousness; they do not always need to struggle and fight back.

Yasmina lets me tape record her answers. She rearranges her sheyla more loosely around her neck, shifting her hair behind one shoulder. She keeps returning to a story, an incident during her Masters course. In the middle of class, she corrected one of her professor’s statements. She knew that he was wrong, and gave proof. The professor said, “Wow, that’s the first time I’ve seen a smart Emirati, a smart Emirati girl.”

I ask Yasmina what happened next. “What do I say?” She asks. “I just looked at him.”

She wants to fight this stereotype. She believes that expatriates living in the UAE think of Emiratis, especially young women, as shallow and vapid, without intellectual curiosity. Despite the newspaper articles praising young Emirati women, popular wisdom still has it that local women only care about acquiring brand name handbags.

Aida feels the same. She enters the Lime Tree Café, a waft of Arabian perfume around her, offering me a kiss on each cheek. We sit upstairs as she picks at a salad, shy to speak and eat at the same time. She tells me that countries are judged by how women act and are treated, and that’s why her government included a chapter on ‘Women’. She thinks of countries like Saudi Arabia, and wants the world to know that women in the UAE can drive cars, can be educated and work alongside a man, can be respected.

This is not the whole picture. Like Yasmina, Aida keeps coming back to disrespect, misconceptions, long-held prejudice against Muslim women, especially those who cover their hair and hide the shapes of their bodies. She asks me: why do foreigners think she is backwards for wearing the abaya and sheyla? Why do they believe a person cannot be open-minded and wear a headscarf? Why are saris and kimonos respected, but the abaya and sheyla is not? She looks at me, exasperated. I wish I could answer. The real and imagined gaze of outsiders causes more damage than the ‘Women’ chapter. The government support is appreciated because in the government’s portrayal, Emirati women are treasured, important, successful.

It means having choices.

When I ask about that popular word, empowerment, the women tell me that it means the ability to make changes. It doesn’t mean you are always in the limelight, running corporations. Instead, a woman can be empowered quietly, by starting a home business while raising kids. It means having choices. It means women working in areas controlled by men and improving them. It means knowing that your family is standing with you. It means women are the heads of households. It means women can be attached to a man, or not. It means being given opportunities and support in education, in starting a business, in political work, in any field, especially those dominated by men. The women I meet tell me that they have all of this. They smile conspiratorially, saying they feel sorry for the men; women are too powerful, and getting all the attention.

I meet Amal, a young Emirati writer, at the Jumeriah Souk. She pauses in the middle of a sentence to point out a young Emirati man wearing a kandoura and a blonde foreign woman wearing a tank top passing by. She turns to me and says, “We can’t do that.” She laughs, and wonders what she should expect in a country where she is vilified for tweeting that the men in Turkey were “cute” while visiting Istanbul.

Amal and others told me about their female friends whose parents won’t allow them to work. I learn that Emirati women are likely to earn less than Emirati men, and that family conflicts are the main reason why Emirati women resign from employment. Emirati women have fewer opportunities for professional development or promotion, since men are often shown more respect in the workplace. I listen to tales of not being allowed on a study trip overseas, or to move to another city, or leave the country on a business trip.

Despite these negative experiences, I keep returning to each woman’s undeniable energy and singular accomplishments. Sahar, the weightlifter, proving that Emirati women can compete in a male dominated sport; Lamya, the cultural ambassador describing Emirati culture to foreigners; Maha, the comedian telling jokes about the ways foreigners perceive Emirati women; Jamilah, the community organiser and spoken word poet, committed to giving young people of all nationalities strong role models to follow; Rasha, the human rights lawyer defending Emirati intellectual property.

I meet Hiba at a café near the cinema in the Mall of the Emirates. Western people, she tells me, think being free is not covering your hair, showing your skin. To her, freedom is being able to cover or not cover. Hiba says to me, “The first opinion Western people have of us is that we are oppressed and not as free or open-minded as outside. And I really think that’s wrong because we are free and open-minded, but in our own way, you know? Under our own culture and our own traditions and our own religion, and we are comfortable with that. Really, I don’t like it when they call us oppressed.”

When I imagine what women’s freedom and empowerment might look like, I imagine Hiba, Aida, Amal, Yasmina and the many other young Emirati women I met. Through creating stories, films, art and performances, the women I met are all combatting the stereotypes heaped upon them by the foreigner residents and tourists walking among them. Every day, they challenge what it means to be an Emirati woman.

Jillian Schedneck holds a PhD in Gender Studies from the University of Adelaide and is the author of the travel memoir Abu Dhabi Days, Dubai Nights.