A few home truths about women being ‘burdens on society’

Unmarried women are not the burden the FNC has been told they are. Many are very successful businesswomen, but could still appreciate more help rather than criticism, writes Fatima Al Shamsi.

Although a few weeks have passed since unmarried women were labelled as “burdens on society” by an FNC member, this issue keeps being raised in my social circle. I like to think that there was an element lost in translation, that the unmarried women themselves were not the burden in question, but perhaps the FNC member meant that the social results of having unmarried women was proving to be a financial burden. Either way, I was unsure of the connection between unmarried women and financial problems. Is there a fund or stipend for single women that I was not aware of?

It doesn’t take much digging to find out how active Emirati women are in the economy. World Bank data from 2012 states that women comprise 47 per cent of the labour force. An article on UAE Interact claims that more than 14,000 UAE businesswomen are running up to 20,000 private companies in the UAE, investing more than Dh15 billion in financial markets, real estate and trade. We also have the highest number of businesswomen and women holding political seats in the region, with one of our cabinet ministers, Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, Minister for International Cooperation and Development, featured on Forbes magazine’s 2007 list of the 100 most powerful women in the world.

In whatever industry they work, women in the UAE should be supported for the strides they have made. Why insinuate that their only worth and happiness comes from being mothers and wives? While these are milestones that many women would like to reach in their lives, they are so much more than that.

I’ve been blessed with a supportive family who always pushed me to dream big, but not everyone is as fortunate. Many Emirati women I know find it hard to get married because their potential spouses are not supportive of their career goals. Some are worried about how to transition from work into married life.

In these situations, the government should consider placing more time, energy and funding into supporting women to balance family and work – by increasing maternity leave, introducing paternity leave, introducing flexible work hours, making crèches widely available at work and generally getting creative in addressing these new social issues.

What really upset me about the FNC proposal to increase housing allowances for men with multiple wives was that it makes light of a practice that comes with great responsibility. Islam allows for multiple wives under very specific situations. Therefore polygyny – the practice of a man being allowed to have more than one wife – is not a rule but an exception. The verses allowing polygyny were revealed after the Battle of Uhud where many women were left widowed and children orphaned. These verses were revealed out of compassion towards women. Thus, polygyny should not be the immediate solution to a perceived social issue.

Having the financial means to support multiple women is a prerequisite stated by the noble Quran for anyone considering marriage, let alone multiple marriages. If men cannot afford it then they shouldn’t do it. The UAE already goes above and beyond by having a fund for bachelors who want to get married. It provides enough support to start a family and government assistance should not go beyond that, because of other social issues that need addressing.

I think it would be wise for the UAE to follow Malaysia’s example, where a man must get permission from both the governmental religious authorities and his wife in order to ensure that he’s not causing injustice to his wife or himself by entering into a second marriage for the wrong reasons.

More importantly, spinsterhood is an offensive term to many and should not be thrown around so liberally. Instead of labels, we need to address this issue by discussing it with these women. Are they truly finding it hard to get married? What obstacles are they facing? Do they want to get married? We need to stop judging women for circumstances that might be out of their control.

Just this week, the UAE ranked highly on the global Social Progress Index for treating women with respect and in order to uphold that title we need to recognise that although polygyny might work for some, many women do not want to be part of such a relationship.

Fatima Al Shamsi is an Emirati who recently returned from New York City after pursuing a master’s degree in Global Affairs at NYU

Published: May 1, 2014 04:00 AM

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