Women of the United Arab Emirates: Educated Equals, Social Subordinates

Author: Anna Quinn, Loyola University 

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A fleet of Block 60 Model American-built F-16 fighter jets took off from the United Arab Emirates on the night of September 22nd, headed for Syria. In one of the first missions carried out by the US-led coalition of Arab states against the ISIS, these jets were on their way to carry out airstrikes on oil refineries controlled by ISIS within Syrian borders. Mid-flight, commanders contacted the leading pilot hoping to make arrangements for refueling. But when the response was given, about 20 seconds of silence ensued—the officers on the ground were not expecting the voice they heard on the other end: a woman’s voice.

The voice on the other end was Major Mariam Al Mansouri, the UAE’s first female fighter pilot. Major Mansouri was among the first group of women to graduate from Khawla bint Al Azwar Military school, the first military school created to train women for positions in the UAE military. Over the next few days, Major Mansouri would be the subject of news articles and reports throughout the world, even being interviewed for a profile in The National. Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador to the US, would appear on various talk shows explaining her story to news anchors. The Western world praised Major Mansouri as a hero and championed the UAE’s progress in women’s rights. But while the media portrayed the UAE as vanguard of women’s rights in the Middle East in light of Major Mansouri’s story, the country’s reality is far more nuanced than these praises reveal.

First, Major Mansouri was depicted as a standout individual—and although she does deserve the credit she is given—her story is not necessarily new. Yes, the military school from which Major Mansouri graduated is the first of its kind in the country, but this is not to say that it is the only example of progressive gender equality in the UAE. The decision to allow women to join the military does not seem so surprising and revolutionary when taken in context with the country’s existing climate on women’s role in society. The UAE has been a standout in the Middle East for women’s education and employment rights even before it allowed women to hold positions in the military.

This openness to education and employment opportunities is evident in the human rights report for the country published by the Secretary of State in 2013. The report notes that, “no law prohibits women from working or owning businesses, and a man has no right…to ban his wife from working.” Women also make up 59% of the workforce in the UAE, which is the highest rate of participation in employment of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries, or Arab states of the Gulf, according to Booz & Company on Womens Employment.

The situation is similar when it comes to education. In the UAE, “77% of women continued to higher education after high school, and women constituted more than 75% of university students,” according to the State Department.  This number is particularly staggering considering that only 68.2% of women in the US go to college after high school, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Even historically, the UAE has provided these rights for women. Since the late 1980s women have outnumbered male graduates by a ratio of two to one, with the first girl’s school opening in 1960. Even in the UAE’s government positions, women make up 22% of the Federal National Council.

These statistics create an image of the UAE as perhaps even more open to gender equality than the US, which may be true when it comes to education and the workforce. However, the roles of women in the UAE become even more complex when looking at their other rights in society. The UAE still lags behind in the more social views of women—as does their penal code. The human rights report from 2013 also accounted for the bleak discrimination women still face under the law in the UAE. Spousal rape, for instance, is still not recognized as a crime. Similarly, “the penal code allows men to use physical means, including violence, at their discretion against female and minor family members,” says the report. Women in the UAE rarely feel they can report their abuse or rape not only for fear they will not be believed, but also that they could be prosecuted themselves. Consensual sex out of wedlock is still considered a crime for which women can be penalized and even sentenced to jail. This lack of women’s rights is especially surprising considering their contrast with the statistics on education and employment in the UAE.  

Perhaps the real take-away from Major Mansouri’s instant fame is how simplistically the world views women’s roles in the Middle East, when their rights are both complicated and varied. The automatic response of the media gives both too much and too little credit to the UAE government. First, the swarm of attention given to Major Mansouri’s story implies the perception of her as an outlier of the UAE society—the first of her kind. While Major Mansouri is the first of her kind in that she is the first female air pilot, we can see that she is actually one of many women in the UAE that are highly-educated and serving in high-level jobs. The UAE is given no credit for its long history of progressive women’s rights in education and employment as Major Mansouri’s story is praised as a new development for women in her country. However, this attention also gives too much credit in that it ignores the work the UAE still must do in the area of women’s rights. To champion the country’s achievements for women simply based on Major Manouri’s story is to gloss over the nuanced status of women in the UAE. Before the UAE can truly be celebrated as a symbol of progressivism for gender equality, they must take long strides towards women’s social standing and status under the law.

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