Emirati Women's Day: How Gen Z epitomise Sheikh Zayed's vision for equality

The National speaks to young women about their paths to success, and how the generations before them paved the way

From arts to airports, sports to stages, young Emiratis are embracing career opportunities many women don't have elsewhere in the region
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The UAE's Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, once said: “The woman is half of the society; any country which pursues development should not leave her in poverty or illiteracy.”

In the years since his leadership, the country has served as a beacon of female empowerment and representation.

Today, Emirati women play a crucial role across all strata of society – from running households and having careers in government to teaching at celebrated academic institutions and competing in elite sports.

This Emirati Women's Day, running under the theme of We Collaborate for Tomorrow, The National speaks to the young women who are not just following in the footsteps of their predecessors, but also carving out their own paths as living examples of Sheikh Zayed's vision.

Maitha Rasheed Alomaira, curatorial assistant, 24

Alomaira is a curatorial assistant at Louvre Abu Dhabi. She was also awarded the 2020 Abu Dhabi Festival Visual Arts Award and was selected as part of the ninth Salama bint Hamdan Emerging Artists Fellowship.

"In my role, I particularly enjoy tasks related to the Louvre Abu Dhabi collection. It's quite rewarding to closely research artworks and access various online and resource centre materials,” Alomaira says. As well as her passion for art, she says she owes some of her success to the other women in her life.

“Throughout my upbringing, I've been fortunate to be surrounded by remarkable women who have significantly influenced the person I am today,” says Alomaira.

“Currently, I find myself in the company of Emirati female artists spanning different generations, individuals I respect and continuously learn from. Simultaneously, I hold deep respect for the earlier generation of female artists who pioneered the path for us. Their efforts have paved the way for the opportunities we now enjoy.”

Alomaira says Emirati Women's Day serves as a reminder of the contributions that women have made to society across generations. “Historically, Emirati women exhibited remarkable diligence and were the backbone of their families. In the present day, we honour and pay tribute to the women who have nurtured the new wave of Emirati women.

“Being part of the new generation of Emirati women, my aspirations revolve around making meaningful contributions to our nation. Our generation brims with passion and a collective readiness to redefine the role of women in our society. This comes with a sense of responsibility, recognising that our present actions will influence the trajectory and standing of Emirati women in the future.”

Sara Al Hashimi, musician, 22

Al Hashimi recently graduated from Berklee College of Music in Boston, the US. Although she plays the piano, guitar, ukulele, violin and viola, she says her voice is her main instrument.

“Music is such a new concept as a career in the UAE and I look forward to being part of the huge art and culture initiatives that are now being developed in the UAE,” Al Hashimi adds.

“I feel that I can really be a pioneer, especially in the field I’m in.”

To celebrate Emirati Women’s Day, Al Hashimi will be performing and speaking as part of a panel at the Women’s Pavilion at Expo City – an opportunity she says she is grateful to have.

“We are so lucky in the UAE to have such a visionary leadership that celebrates and supports women,” she says.

“I feel really proud to be an Emirati woman and to be celebrated on a special day just dedicated to us. It means that we are appreciated, respected and recognised as being an integral part of society and the UAE community.”

Al Hashimi believes that young women and future generations should celebrate the UAE throughout the year, but also make the most of the day especially dedicated to them.

“You should face every day celebrating that you live in one of the safest, most tolerant and most amazing countries in the world,” she adds.

“This day is just an extra special celebration.”

Shouq Ali Mohammed Al Ahli, rugby captain, 21

“Do not underestimate this little girl,” coach Philadelphia Orlando says, as young Emirati athlete Al Ahli poses for the camera at the Sevens Stadium in Dubai.

“She is dedicated, hardworking and reliable. You might look at her size and think: 'She's too tiny, she can't do anything', but wait until you see her on the pitch,” the coach adds about the captain of Al Maha, the UAE's all-Emirati rugby team.

Standing 1.49 metres, Al Ahli says she often gets speculative looks when she reveals she plays rugby professionally. Her petite frame, plus the fact she's an Arab woman, often leads people to underestimate her interest and talent in the rough and tumble sport.

However, Al Ahli says: “Size does not matter in rugby. Whether you are thin, thick, tall or short, it doesn't matter. All that matters on the pitch is your heart, mind and soul.”

Even though Al Ahli describes herself as the “tiniest and shortest” in the national rugby team, she exudes a towering confidence – and a prodigious passion for the sport. Currently studying emergency medical services at a university in Sharjah, she comes from an athletic family and has played sports since childhood.

“I have very supportive parents and two younger brothers who also play sports,” says Al Ahli, who acknowledges other girls in the Arab world might not have had the same privilege as her.

It is why she believes celebrating Emirati Women's Day is crucial and she has a responsibility to inspire other young Emiratis. “There weren't a lot of opportunities before as Emirati women, but now I think it's getting better," she adds. "We are lawyers, doctors, athletes, you name it. And I'd like to do my part to keep it that way.”

Maryam Al Shehhi, writer and spoken word performer, 22

Al Shehhi is a writer, translator and spoken word performer. Having studied literature, creative writing and political science at NYU Abu Dhabi, she has performed in several plays and published the Arabic children’s book, What Does It Mean to Belong?

Al Shehhi, who writes about mental health, culture, tribal connections and belonging, says books and creative expression were a “sanctuary” and a “source of joy” growing up.

“I remember writing my first poem when I was 15,” she adds. “I carried so many feelings in my heart."

Writing in both Arabic and English, she says: “Whether on stage or even on page, I speak through the voice of being a woman, an Emirati and all the beautiful tags I carry around.”

Aside from the shared experience of performing on stage, she also finds the craft of writing to be a “therapeutic” and “beautiful” outlet.

“Post-pandemic, the urge to speak up about certain mental health topics was a must not only a need," she adds. "I spoke up for the first time about my battle with anorexia in an article published in 2021.” The issue was also the subject of a performance at Louvre Abu Dhabi that same year.

Reflecting on Emirati Women’s Day, she adds: “Emirati women provide us with endless reasons to celebrate them every day, but this special day emphasises the importance of recognising and celebrating Emirati women – for striving, thriving, achieving and simply existing as sisters, daughters, mothers, grandmothers and pillars of our nation."

Roudhah Hamad Al Mazrouei, visual artist, 20

Al Mazrouei is a visual artist and recipient of the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award from NYU Abu Dhabi. She has also curated a number of exhibitions, including Zuhoor at Manarat Al Saadiyat in March.

Al Mazrouei's passion for art stems from a “deep desire for self-expression and a fascination with the power of visual storytelling”.

Aside from themes of transformation, identity and the subconscious, she also calls Emirati culture “a wellspring of inspiration” for her. She adds: “It infuses my work with a unique perspective and voice. I strive to reflect the Emirati experience through a female lens, showcasing the richness of our traditions, values and history. My art becomes a bridge between the past and the present, inviting viewers to engage with the cultural nuances that shape my identity and creativity.”

For Al Mazrouei, Emirati Women’s Day holds great significance. She says: “It's a celebration of the strength, resilience and achievements of Emirati women. As an artist, I see it as an opportunity to shine a light on the stories of women in my culture and to amplify their voices and experiences through my art.

“It's a day to honour the trailblazers, acknowledge progress and inspire future generations of Emirati women to pursue their dreams confidently.”

Almas, singer, 23

Almas knew she arrived as an artist when her name was up in lights in New York.

Named as one of the ambassadors for Spotify’s Equal Arabia programme last year – an initiative highlighting emerging female artists from the region – her image was beamed on a billboard at Times Square.

The singer and songwriter recalls savouring the moment at home in Khor Fakkan, Sharjah. It followed another milestone of performing at the opening ceremony of Expo 2020 Dubai.

Joining the Emirati star Hussain Al Jassmi and Lebanese singer Mayssa Karaa, she performed the expo's official anthem This is Our Time.

“The last few years have been a real blessing for me," she says. “I have never been to America before and to be on a billboard in such an iconic place as a woman from the Middle East is special.

“When it comes to the Expo opening ceremony it all felt so huge. I never really understood how big it was until I stepped on stage in front of all these people. It was really a magical experience.”

Almas is not content to only celebrate past achievements and has released a string of singles over the last year.

The latest, Aaksohom, is a vibrant electropop number blending trap hip-hop beats with savvy pop melodies sung in Egyptian slang and English.

“Before this song, I was going through a little bit of writer’s block and this song was really about me just experimenting with different styles and seeing what happens,” she says. “It is a mishmash of styles that sounds futuristic but also represents who I am as a modern Emirati music artist.”

It is this aspect that Almas will celebrate on Emirati Women’s Day. “The UAE always encourages us to be the best that we can be,” she says. “I have been in love with art and music since I was a child and I always felt encouraged and appreciated to pursue my dreams.

“So to have a day like Emirati Women's Day to celebrate our achievements and different passions is amazing. I feel very privileged.”

Maria Al Khaja, youth council chair, 23

One misconception older generations have about Gen Z is that they are “soft and sensitive”, and that these traits somehow represent weakness.

Al Khaja, an associate at international consultancy firm KPMG, firmly thinks otherwise.

“Maybe we had easier childhoods compared to some, but that doesn't mean we aren't just as tough,” she says. “You get tougher as the years go by, but even if you retain your sensitivity, what is so wrong with that?”

Al Khaja, who studied computer science at NYU Abu Dhabi, has been with KPMG Lower Gulf's data analytics department for two years and was recently appointed chair of the company's all-Emirati youth council. Of the company's 2,000-strong workforce, 30 per cent are aged 26 or below and she aims to become a voice for them.

It's a tall order, she acknowledges, but Al Khaja says equal representation is the way forward.

“Men and women think differently, thus contributing differently to society,” she explains. "When you have a balance between both genders, you will operate in a more inclusive and holistic way."

For her, Emirati Women's Day is an acknowledgement of the continuing efforts of the UAE government, as well as international companies operating in the country, to turn equal representation a much-needed reality.

Hajer Al Riyami, flight analyst, 24

The word “ambition” is an important one for Al Riyami, not just for herself, but for all Emirati women.

“An Emirati woman is ambitious; always looking for opportunities,” Al Riyami says. “She doesn’t just satisfy the minimum and she’s always eager to learn.”

Al Riyami has a degree in computer engineering from Abu Dhabi University and is a flight analyst at Etihad Airways, where she helps to optimise inventory, control flight behaviour and ensure aircraft don’t depart with too many empty seats.

A career in aviation is not something she had imagined, but she says it has been a “great choice”. And she’s already envisioning her future in the industry where AI, for example, could be used to optimise flight data and reports.

“In aviation, there’s high compensation and job flexibility, but it’s also demanding,” she says. Critical flights, in particular, are the biggest challenge she’s faced so far in her 10 months at the company.

In a world where social media fatigue and information overload can get the better of people, she says it’s important for Emirati women to support each other. “We play a vital role in raising the younger generation and embracing concepts of tolerance, sustainability and global awareness," she adds.

With contributions from Hareth Al Bustani, One Carlo Diaz, Maan Jalal, Razmig Bedirian, Saeed Saeed and Katy Gillett

Updated: August 28, 2023, 7:02 AM