17 Emirati women talk to us about the biggest misconceptions they face

'Successful Emirati women are considered the exception, not the rule,' and other mistruths

From left: Omaira Farooq Al Olama and Maya Al Hawary have both spoken to 'The National' about society's misconceptions. 
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Today is the fifth annual Emirati Women's Day. The yearly commemoration was launched in 2015 by Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, chairwoman of the General Women's Union, to recognise the crucial role of women in the country's development and future.

As Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, pointed out last year: "Women in the UAE have surpassed the stage of being contributors to the nation's development to achievers who elevate the rank of the nation."

I find the most common misconception to be about a lack of ambition. Dubai's society today is incredibly encouraging of the roles women are capable of playing in the community and in different industries

Indeed, an Emirati woman, Dr Amal Al Qubaisi, is speaker of the house at the Federal National Council. An Emirati woman, Reem Al Hashimi, is the managing director of Expo 2020, arguably the biggest event to ever come to the UAE. An Emirati woman, Bodour Al Qasimi, is the vice president of the International Publishers Association – she is the first Arab woman to hold a leadership position with the organisation.

We could continue to rattle off the success stories, but the truth is that many people still make assumptions about Emirati women. Even some people who have lived in the UAE for many years can be heard making generalisations that, as the 17 women we spoke to this week prove, are often wrong.

Here is what they want to say to those who would believe such stereotypes. 

Sahar Parham, junior pastry chef, Burj Al Arab

“While there may be misconceptions about the kinds of professions Emirati women seek out, today we are literature festival directors, global market strategists, weavers, ministers, ambassadors, ice skaters, MMA fighters, opera singers, baristas, fashion designers, race car drivers and pilots, all balancing lives in a family-oriented culture. I believe I am lucky to be in the age group of Emiratis who, as change and decision-­makers in a fast-paced world, are ­pushing the boundaries to break stereotypes.”

Sahar Parham, junior pastry chef at the Burj Al Arab points out that Emirati women are ­'pushing the boundaries to break stereotypes'

Fatima Al Ali, women’s ice hockey player and international referee

“Things are changing quickly in the UAE, and the local mentality is changing, too. We are conservative in things that are related to our culture and religion, but we’re still like everyone else. People think we are locked in and not free, but we have the freedom to do what we want: study, work, travel, etc.

“Some people think we are not well-educated and not open-minded, but our country gave us the privilege to study for free and finish our higher education. Universities ­motivate us to get high grades in school so we can get scholarships to study abroad.

“People believe women here are too spoiled to do anything, but we depend on ourselves and do many things alone. We don’t have people do everything for us.”

Omaira Farooq Al Olama, managing director, ALF Administration  

"One of my biggest pet peeves about [the perception of] Emirati women is that we don't like to mingle with expats. I always heard the sentence that 'oh, it's easier to speak to and mingle with Emirati men than it is with women'. This really upsets me as Emirati women are so friendly, outgoing and very happy to meet new people. It's just they might be more reserved at first. But I wish people took the time to get to know us and break the shell before automatically calling us unfriendly or unapproachable."

Omaira Farooq Al Olama, managing director, ALF Administration

Mona Altamimi, vice president of marketing and corporate communications, Deyaar

“There has long been a misconception that Emirati women are underrepresented in leadership roles. However, there are plenty of women leading companies, even ministries, in the UAE, which has been the case for several years now. Emirati women have formed the backbone of our society for generations, and continue to work tirelessly to achieve the vision of the UAE’s leadership. I am proud to belong to a nation that embraces gender equality and gives women every opportunity to thrive, whatever path they may choose.”

Najla Al-Midfa, chief executive, Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre  

"Stereotypes about Emirati women are still common. It is often assumed that we are an oppressed minority, with fewer rights, opportunities, and access to education and jobs than our male counterparts. Notably, successful women are considered the exception, not the rule. Thanks to the UAE government's prominent efforts to highlight the key roles women play in our society, this mentality is shifting. Ironically, however, with these efforts has arisen another misconception: that Emirati women's empowerment is a recent phenomenon. The fact is, our women have been empowered since the nation's founding. As Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father, said: 'The woman represents half of our society; any country which pursues development should not leave her in poverty or illiteracy.'

There has long been a misconception that Emirati women are underrepresented in leadership roles, but  Emirati women have formed the backbone of our society for generations

"Gender stereotypes are also common when it comes to women's career choices. Many assume that Emirati women are only interested in fields such as fashion or media. While these may be just as vital to a thriving economy, they are not the only industries in which women excel. In aviation, space science, entrepreneurship and more, Emirati women are blazing new paths to success. For example, out of the 72 start-ups that graduated between 2016-2018 from the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre, 53 per cent were female-led, including Emiratis.

"I feel grateful to be living in alignment with my authentic self, and to be working in a field that is so dear to my heart. It truly is an exciting time to be an Emirati woman. With each passing year, we continue to see more women in strong and empowered roles – in the media, in business, in politics and in society. And, with each passing year, outdated assumptions are being challenged and gender stereotypes are being crushed. We still have a while to go before women's voices are fully equally represented, but we are definitely well on our way."

'I feel grateful to be living in alignment with my authentic self, and to be working in a field that is so dear to my heart,' says Najla Al-Midfa

Maitha Al Eisaei, communications lead at Strata Manufacturing

“A misconception about Emirati women is that we are looking for comfortable jobs. There are numerous examples across the UAE of how Emirati women occupy leading positions within a variety of industries. I am proud of my sisters who have led the way and created opportunities for others to follow. As an Emirati woman working at Strata – an aerostructures manufacturing company that has an Emiratisation rate of 58 per cent, of which almost 90 per cent are women – there is no better example of how this is nothing but a misconception.”

Basma Abu Ghazaleh, founder and designer, Kage womenswear label

"I feel the Middle East in general can be misunderstood, especially regarding the topic of equality. However, this isn't the reality. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, has been an inspiring advocate for women's rights in the region and especially in the workforce. I think now, more than ever before, Emirati women are showing their leadership and entrepreneurial spirit by contributing greatly to the development of the nation and community through various fields of work.

"Owning my label was something I always dreamt of, and I was able to launch Kage in 2009. We as a region are very patriotic and love to support each other, so it was important for me to ensure my brand contributed to the local economy and that's why I chose to have my collections manufactured here in Dubai. My hope is to see more and more young Emirati women branching out and forming the new generation of inspiring entrepreneurs."

Basma Abu Ghazaleh, founder and designer at Kage womenswear label

Shaima Al Hammadi, student, UAE University 

"People might think women are oppressed and wronged here, but they only hear that instead of seeing reality. The reality is that women are ministers in the UAE, women are always given special rights in the UAE, women are respected in the UAE, women's voices are heard in the UAE and always encouraged to make a move. Women are an important part of the UAE and everyone agrees with that.

“With that encouragement, Emirati women are brave, and always passionate about improving themselves, ­improving the country and improving the world. Of course there will be some people who have negative opinions, but there won’t ever be a clean, perfect society in the world. People must know how much women are treasured and encouraged in the UAE and that the Emirati woman is an enthusiastic, hardworking woman.”

There are traditional women, and that leads people to think that they aren't also modern – which couldn't be further from the truth

Ahlam Bolooki, director, Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

“The biggest misconception about the Emirati woman is that she plays a secondary role to that of the male in society, when actually male leaders of Emirati tribes have often historically been guided by the powerful female figures in their lives. A visit to the Women’s Museum in Dubai will reveal many examples of this. With the spirit of her foremothers and the ­encouragement of the UAE leaders, the Emirati woman today is leading in the government and private sectors, paving the way forward for women all over the world.”

Amira Sajwani, senior vice president of operations, Damac Properties

“As a young Emirati woman with aspirations, I find the most common misconception to be about a lack of ambition. Dubai’s society today is incredibly encouraging of the roles women are capable of playing in the community and in the various different industries. Today, Emirati women are diversifying their roles in ­society, whether through creative measures such as opening successful F&B businesses that started from nothing but home kitchens, to taking on leadership roles in the government. Emirati women have ambition, and that is not always recognised.” 

Amira Sajwani insists that 'Emirati women are diversifying their roles in ­society'

Athra Alsubousi, co-founder, Little Malibu Cafe 

“People think we’re born with so much luck and privilege or resource. This is true, but on the other hand, we are also born with a lot of challenges; we’re born with traditions and a different type of mindset. I believe people should know that Emirati women also face challenges, but they overcome them. I’m so proud of my friends, I’m so proud of ­Emirati women; we overcome challenges. I believe our country is supporting us, but we have to take the first step and we’re doing that.”

Sheikha Mariam bint Khalifa bin Saif Al Nahyan, founder, MKS jewellery 

“There are traditional women, and that leads people to think that they aren’t also modern – which couldn’t be further from the truth. There are a plethora of other misconceptions about education, life goals, place in society, personal interests, taste in clothes, travel and so on. What I love about the Emirati woman, which includes me, is that her strong roots and heritage is something she finds great pride in. She is not scared to carry these things forward, and she is extremely proud of her culture and its traditions.

“She doesn’t need to waste time redefining at every moment, her foundations are solid, which holds her up well in her contemporary life. She is well read, educated, adventurous and active, she’s ultra-creative on multiple platforms, a strong participant (if not even a leader) in society and she does everything with so much love, because she stands tall as an Emirati woman.”

Nouf Al Hamly, assistant director, research public outreach and research assistant programme, NYU Abu Dhabi

“If I were asked this question when I was younger, I may have had a different response. However, with all the experience I’ve had living abroad, travelling and working in both public and private sectors among a diverse range of individuals with different cultural backgrounds and beliefs, I find myself cautious with my perceptions to what would be presumed ‘stereotypical’ about Emirati women. I think that is entirely subjective and relative to where people get their sources of information. I grew up in a supportive ­environment that nurtured growth, cultivated good character and instilled values that allow us to be the best versions of ourselves … regardless of gender or nationality.”

Amna Al Haddad, champion weightlifter and motivational speaker

"There is a lot of diversity within the UAE community and there is a misconception that all Emirati women are one and the same, and that couldn't be further from the truth. Emirati women are talented and play an active role in many fields in the country and its growth – be it in the arts scene, business, social development or government."

Amna Al Haddad pointed out the misconception that misconception that 'all Emirati women are one and the same'.

Maya Al Hawary, chairwoman of the board of governors and the director of planning at Dubai Carmel School

"The first misconception is that we are not hardworking enough. It is also generally assumed that we don't put in the effort, that we do not have passion or drive. As I move on in my career, I can tell you from experience that it's the complete opposite. The ­second misconception is that an Emirati woman does not have enough weight in the community. This is completely untrue, and we have come such a long way in fewer than 50 years as a society under the guidance of Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father, and other leaders who have pushed women forward and given us several opportunities. It is not bad at all to work alongside a man to build a secure family or solid environment. I would reiterate that we, as Emirati women, are full of intention, dedication and purpose.

People might think women are oppressed here, but they only hear that instead of seeing reality. The reality is that women are ministers in the UAE, women are respected in the UAE, women's voices are heard in the UAE and always encouraged to make a move.

“The third misconception is that an Emirati woman is self-centred. In reality, we are very loyal to where we belong and where we started. I speak about myself and look back at how my husband supported me and how my parents supported me. I dedicate all the success I have achieved so far to my country, my family and children. They remind me every day that they are proud of me. I am also reminded each day at work that my colleagues are proud of me.

“An Emirati woman is not selfish – an Emirati woman is loyal and when asked, she comes to the rescue. At the end of the day, the sooner you ­realise that popularity and success will always go away, the better it is for you.”

Wiaam Ghanem Bani Hashem, GCC human and organisational consultant and founder, Persona Human Resources and Quality Consulting

“Some of the misconceptions about Emirati women are that they are bound by old ways and that they have no rights to express themselves. The abaya and shayla [traditional cloak and headscarf] are considered limitations by onlookers, whereas Emirati women are proud of their UAE traditional and elegant looking attire. Reality has shown that Emirati women are forward thinkers, hardworking employees and committed family members.”

'Emirati women are forward thinkers, hardworking employees and committed family members,' says Wiaam Ghanem Bani Hashem

Fatma Almarzooqi, electrical supervisor in the shipping industry 

“From my experience, one of the most common misconceptions about Emirati women is that women are dependent on male figures in their life, such as fathers or husbands, and can’t handle things ­independently. A couple of years ago, managers gave women non-critical jobs, creating the perception that women can’t lead or handle tasks due to the image that was conveyed; women react upon emotions (with no ­decision-making skills).

"But nowadays, and ­following Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid's rich tribute to Emirati women, describing them as partners in development, generation makers, mothers of martyrs and the pride of the nation, we lead side by side with men in the community and handle the most ­leading positions in the country, such as the head of the Federal ­National Council."