The best of both worlds
Thirty years ago, women in the UAE would have hardly left their homes. Times have changed. Helena Frith Powell meets some of the women making the most of both their careers and family life in a careful balance between opportunity and tradition.
The thing that most annoys Mouza al Mazrouei when she meets people from other cultures is the reaction she gets when she tells them she is from the Gulf. “People are shocked when I tell them where I am from,” says the 25-year-old interior designer, who was born and raised in Abu Dhabi. “They say things like, ‘But you speak English, just like we do’, or ‘But you’re carrying a BlackBerry’. They know nothing about us and judge us on a basis of ignorance, but the reality is very different.”
What exactly is the reality of the Emirati woman? “The reality is that we are still a very traditional people, but even my grandmother has a mobile phone, despite the fact that she wears an extremely traditional abaya,” she says. “She tells me about her life 30 years ago, and I thank God I don’t have to live like that. It was a very difficult life; they were always travelling, they were in Abu Dhabi in the winter and Al Ain during the summer. But what I love is that if I want to experience that life, I can do that, it is still there,” she laughs. “I can sit in the desert drinking camel’s milk in one hand and holding my BlackBerry in the other.”
Hyam al Murekhy, a 24 year-old graphic designer from Abu Dhabi, likes the appeal of this apparent contradiction. “I love the contrast between what we wear [the abaya and sheila] and what we carry,” she says. “It is like the way we grow up: a balance between the traditional and the new.” This balance is being carefully maintained throughout an Emirati woman’s life, not only in what she wears and where she goes, but also in her challenging of traditional boundaries. For example, for some, the old method of arranging marriages has taken on a modern flavour, with women themselves finding husbands and then involving the family once they have made their choice.
One 26-year-old married Emirati, who preferred to speak off the record, tells me how she basically arranged her own marriage. “I met my husband at work and we liked each other,” she says. “Then I involved my family. My mother took over and arranged her own investigation into him and his family. There were meetings and discussions and the marriage was arranged.” Thirty years ago, many women in the UAE would hardly have left their homes, let alone have had any say in their choice of husband. It is clear that things are very different for this generation of women than they were for women even a few years ago. Many say this is in part thanks to both Sheikh Zayed and his wife Sheikha Fatima, great champions of women’s rights and education.
“Emirati women started as housewives and in that role they have brought up the leaders of today,” says Eiman al Zaabi, who is 31 and works as a teacher in the IT faculty of Abu Dhabi Women’s College. “Their role started to change as the late Sheikh Zayed encouraged them to take the opportunities presented to them by opening the doors for education and career advancements.” Now they are present in every part of society, from Sheikha Lubna Khalid Sultan Al Qasimi, the UAE’s Minister for Foreign Trade, to judges and policewomen and even foreign ambassadors.
Sarah Belhasa, 34, who owns the Studio 8 designer shop in Dubai, feels the government is extremely supportive of women. “Women in business here are at an advantage,” she says. “The Sheikhas are supporting us, and we get a lot of support from the government. No other country in the world supports the young women in business as much as the UAE does.” “Women used to be responsible for the house, husband and kids,” says Noora al Falahi, 28, a senior assistant for business development, real estate and hospitality at Mubadala. “Now women are the foundation for the development of our country. They have skills to be a mother, a sister, a working woman, a homemaker – anything they want to be.”
Shaikha al Mehairy, 41, who works as a manager of people development for the Western Region Development Council, has this advice for her 13 nieces and nephews: “Negotiate with your family. Talk to them. In my family I thought no meant no, but I realised too late that no doesn’t mean no. You need to go back and talk to them.” Al Falahi explains how she and her sisters encouraged their mother to allow her younger sister to travel to South Africa recently. “My sister is only 21 and my mother refused to let her go to begin with. Then my sisters and I talked to her. We encouraged her and eventually my sister went. She won an award for a short film she made there and now my mother will let her go again.”
But there are still certain limitations that are non-negotiable. “For ladies, there are red lines that you cannot cross,” says al Falahi. “In the past, for example, you couldn’t drive alone or even go shopping. It’s a good thing this is changing, but of course there are still certain limitations.” Contrary to the image some foreigners have of Emirati women, these rules are not resented. “We can do whatever we like but within limits,” says al Murekhy. “There are of course religious rules, but we are happy with those rules, we love those rules.”
Fatima Alrashedi, who is 25 and works as a financial analyst for the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development, agrees. She doesn’t think she will bring up her children any differently from the way she was brought up. “I will be sure to preserve the traditions we have,” she says. “Yes, there are limitations, but we respect those limitations and know their value. I was not told, ‘No, you’re never going to go out’. My parents were open-minded even if there were limitations. They also talked to me and explained the limitations, and I had respect for them and their values. Girls here are happy to listen to their parents, although I think for the previous generation it was more about what my family wants, and now it is more about what I want and how I want to live.”
Is this change due to an increase in education? Or perhaps the influence of other cultures in the UAE? Most of the women interviewed are, to a greater or lesser extent, happy about the changes their roles as women have gone through. They are proud of the UAE’s achievements and of the Emirati woman. But they don’t see the entire older generation of Emirati women as oppressed or behind the times. “My father was a fisherman,” explains al Mehairy. “But the woman who took the fish from him and took them to the market and made a big profit was a woman. My mother was an extremely mild woman, but she told everyone around her, ‘Don’t interfere with my daughter’s education’ despite the fact that I was not allowed to do many other things.”
Alrashedi says her mother has always worked as a teacher and that education was also an essential part of her upbringing. “Education was always a priority. It was always planned that I would go to university and we always went to good schools.” Women in the UAE have embraced education. In fact, there are now more women than men graduating from the country’s universities. “Women here are very intelligent and they are leading the way,” says al Mehairy. “They are go-getters, they have ambition. I meet women who work and who have families and are also trying to set up their own businesses at the same time. Women are now trying to do it all.”
With education and knowledge comes change. Are these women worried their traditions and national identity will suffer? Especially with all the other cultures present in the UAE? “It’s one of those things that you have mixed feelings about. I think it’s wonderful that we experience different people from different cultures and get to know more about them. I believe that they enrich our lives with their greatness, everyone being the best they can, trying to fulfil their own personal goals while achieving the country’s strategic plans,” says al Zaabi. “On the other hand, a multinational country faces some issues such as security, losing cultural values, losing mother-tongue language and rising administration and management challenges.
“I think of the UAE as countries inside a country. I think it will become less traditional. We are losing traditional values bit by bit. For example, the traditional Emirati dress is changing. The closeness we used to experience in our neighbourhood disappeared. We used to have visitors come by every day, and neighbours would treat us as family. It was fantastic.” One person who would not be sad to see the traditional dress go is al Mehairy. “I hate them,” she laughs, grabbing hold of the sleeve of her abaya. “They are polyester and really heavy. But at my age I can’t see myself not wearing one, even in the middle of women. My aunt said in the past women wore white abayas in the summer; I wish someone had kept pictures. I wonder if it was widespread or if it was just my aunt!”
We spoke to 20 women from various backgrounds ranging in age from their early 20s to early 40s. Here’s what they had to say:
“I don’t want my husband to be really strict. He needs to know that we work and we go out. He also needs to be generous; generous in mind and manner.” Hyam al Murekhy “My first priority would be to assess his religious views and then his moral nature. From a religious point of view it is not important that he’s an Emirati. But it is important from a cultural point of view. Most families want to keep the Emirati way of thinking. This is only natural. I will not be forced to marry someone I don’t want to. It is against our religion to force a daughter to do something against her will. I have never heard of a girl being forced into marriage. I’m sure it happens, but not in my circle. It is very different now to how it used to be. Maybe parents have learnt from bad experiences, learnt from the experience of forcing daughters to marry someone they think is suitable.” Fatima Alrashedi “I wanted someone I could discuss things with and also someone who had the right mixture of tradition and open-mindedness.” Noora al Falahi (married with one child) “I’d look for a husband who is respectful for who I am, honest, transparent and willing to share his life with me. I mean really share it, both the good and bad.” Eiman al Zaabi (married with three children) “Open-mindedness, tanned and with Italian roots. Somewhere between Emirati and Italian.” Mouza al Mazrouei
“I think it would be amazing; you could do so many things. Sheikhas are looked up to as role models and it would be such a good chance to bring change where it was needed and also to represent both our culture and religion as a woman.” Fatima Alrashedi “I’m quite happy as I am.” Shaikha al Mehairy “I don’t think I would like to be one since with it comes a huge responsibility, for the Sheikhas to be role models and also an authority in which you will need to exercise precise fairness with people, which I think would be a lot for me to take on board.” Eiman al Zaabi
“Being an Emirati woman is really great, you get a huge amount of respect. When I wear the abaya it is almost empowering. It gives me power and makes me feel dignified or like royalty.” Sarah Belhasa “It makes me proud to think of myself as an Emirati woman. We have come a long way in terms of economic, social and civil development, and I believe that both young and old Emirati women played a vital role in this development. In this country we are blessed in so many ways. We have very good educational opportunities, we have career opportunities and we have women who are given the chance to be innovative and creative. More importantly, an Emirati woman represents authenticity, integrity and loyalty.” Eiman al Zaabi “It means everything to me, actually. I am really proud to be an Emirati and to have been raised in this country. I thank God that I was born here and thank God that our rulers are responsible people doing such good things for the country.” Hyam al Murekhy “It is very important to keep your image as an Emirati woman both in terms of your religion and culture. I don’t just stop wearing my sheila when I travel. I don’t wear an abaya, but I do dress with dignity.” Fatima Alrashedi
“I think we are really on the way to being developed now, and what I wish more than anything is that we had a local industry made by Emirati hands, like a great car built by UAE nationals in the UAE.” Noora al Falahi “I wish for them to be less materialistic, to be more realistic. I mean for them to feel something for what is going on in the world around them and not just live in their own little bubble talking about fashion and gossip. I would like them to think.” Fatima Alrashedi “I wish for them a smoother journey in raising their children, in being who they want to be, but at the same time to maintain their cultural and Islamic values. I also wish for them to see their dreams come true, as I’m sure we have the talent and the determination needed for our women to experience and rejoice in the life they deserve.” Eiman al Zaabi “I would like to see each and every one educated. Every child has to be educated. Money can go and come but education and knowledge stays forever. You can always stand on your own. Educating a woman is educating a family.” Sarah Belhasa “I would like them to be more engaged in the community. In this modern way of life people have lost touch with the spirit of the community and the needs of the community. Emirati women have a lot to contribute and they have to be engaged.” Shaikha al Mehairy
“I find it really horrible when kids as young as six or seven treat maids or labourers or drivers as if they are nothing. Even when I was that age I would find it offensive. ‘Oh he’s Indian’ or ‘oh he’s from the Philippines,’ they say. I find that really depressing and if I ever hear it I make an issue of it. We are all equal. But on the positive side I think things are getting better as there is more interconnection between people and we are beginning to think about others in terms that go beyond just the material. I would also change the culture of nepotism we have here. It is very common here to get a job because of personal connections.” Fatima Alrashedi “I’d certainly change nothing as it is a lovely country the way it is. On the other hand, I’d love more emphasis on cultural and Islamic values and holding on to whatever is left of our heritage because that’s our history and who we are. I would also work on creating a common ground between the different nationalities that live here to understand each other and work on a common goal, which is achieving the country’s vision.” Eiman al Zaabi
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019