Emirati women working as sales staff in shops and supermarket cashiers say they are proud of their jobs and hope to break stereotypes.
Women who have taken up roles told The National that it gave them valuable experience.
Last year, the government set a quota for hiring Emiratis in the private sector. Companies with more than 50 employees were required to have Emiratis form 2 per cent of their workforce by the start of this year.
Figures released this month showed that 28,700 Emiratis have taken jobs at private companies since the launch of the Nafis programme, which provides a monthly salary top-up of Dh5,000 to Dh,7000.
These include jobs not traditionally filled by Emiratis, such as being sales assistants, along with more technical and skilled roles.
Those who spoke to us said it is still surprising for some people to see them at the till in a supermarket - but they know that will change.
Sheikha Al Mheiri, 39, has worked as a saleswoman at a shop in a mall in Abu Dhabi for four years, long before the Nafis job scheme began.
She earns about Dh11,400 ($3,100) a month, working 12-hour shifts, five days a week.
“Yes, I'm an Emirati and I work as a saleswoman. I wish they would be more accepting of us,” she said.
Ms Al Mheiri drew comparisons with Emiratis who work in customer service centres, which many thousands do.
“We are both dealing with customers and offering a service. They help you finish your paperwork and we help you choose the right bag or clothes, for example.
“Why is it acceptable for an Emirati to stand at a food stall selling food at an exhibition but not in a shop selling clothes?”
She went through a divorce prior to that, but says she came out stronger and now takes care of her four children.
She said the first question she is asked by Emirati customers is if she is the owner of the shop.
“But when they find out that I’m a sales lady, they ask me again if I am an Emirati,” she said.
“And then comes shock and pity and the question we are all asked: 'Why are you doing this?'”
“I don’t think people realise that with many of us, it isn’t just about the money. We do love what we are doing and we are proud of that.”
The past few years have not been easy for Ms Al Mheiri. Soon after her divorce, her son was in a car accident and lost movement in one leg. This pushed her into getting a job.
“I was getting depressed and needed to leave the house,” she said.
“Standing for so long is a challenge for most but I love being on my feet and I love my job. I think I would get bored at a government desk job.
“My children are proud of me. It would mean the world to me if a customer or friend told me that they are proud of me.”
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Badreya Al Ali, 40, works in a shop in Sharjah and said her job has taught her not only patience but how to deal with difficult customers.
“Handling rude customers is a part of the job,” she told The National.
Ms Al Ali said recently a customer told her she never imagined that one day she would see Emirati women working as 'maids' in shops.
“It was rude, it was insulting but I believe in the dignity of labour. There is also nothing wrong with being a maid. There is no shame in doing any kind of work.
“We do this for our country, to help our economy and for ourselves.”
Ms Al Ali said she earns around Dh12,500 per month. The work is challenging but gives her satisfaction.
“There are rude customers. It'll be difficult to believe, but there are customers who will throw clothes in your face and even scream at you.
“But the job teaches you to control your anger and handle customers empathetically.”
She and many other Emirati women who are in this field receive full support from the government and are grateful for that, she said.
“It is because of this support that you see many Emiratis joining the private sector,” she said.
“Today, I feel proud when a customer walks in and sees that an Emirati is the face of retail. I hope they feel the same sense of pride to see me representing my country.”
'I've become more confident'
Alya Al Zaabi, 20, is a young Emirati who has just started her career.
She works at a jewellery store in Abu Dhabi that specialises in crystal pieces and earns around Dh9,000 a month.
Ms Al Zaabi has been in the job for three months. She said it has been a learning experience but she often gets stares and questions when it comes to her salary.
“People ask me why I accepted this job. I just laugh and ask if they have anything worthwhile to offer,” she said.
“The good part about the job is that I have learnt how to deal with people of all different nationalities and races.
"I have become more confident and love to be part of a multinational team.”
Cashier who wants to pursue higher studies
Mouza Al Hammadi is 19 and has just left school.
Her plan is to pursue higher studies but for now, she works as a cashier at a supermarket.
She said being an Emirati, questions around low pay and long hours are bound to be asked.
“Salary queries are very common. When it's from Emiratis, it's full of surprise and disbelief that I accepted a 'low-paying job',” she said.
“If it's from my expat colleagues, it's full of jealousy that I get more than them because I am an Emirati and they envy us because of the government support we receive.
“I really hate it that I am asked the same question almost every day."
Ms Al Hammadi said her monthly salary is around Dh6,500 but with the Nafis support, her take home pay is Dh11,000.
She said the turnover of staff at the supermarket counters and department stores is high.
“Many leave and can’t handle the long hours and one-day weekend,” she said.
She said the women work eight hours a day, six days a week, and stand at the checkout counter for most of the time.
“Personally, the hardest part is the shift work and one day off. I have a friend who could only get Tuesday off. She never saw her family but this is the nature of the job,” she said.
Ms Al Hammadi said the strangest, most baffling part of the job is that some Emiratis avoid coming to her checkout counter.
“I don't understand why should they be uncomfortable or think that I should be ashamed,” she said.
“I smile and make eye contact with them to encourage them to come to my counter, but many look away.
“Honestly, for a first job and with the salary I am getting, I think this is a huge opportunity and I am lucky to have it. This is a great experience and if I could go back in time, I would choose the same job” she said.
How does Nafis programme help Emiratis financially?
Financial incentives have been introduced to help Emiratisation goals.
Monthly salary top-ups from the government include Dh7,000 for holders of a bachelor’s degree, Dh6,000 for diploma holders and Dh5,000 for those who completed high school or less.
For Emiratis undergoing training for highly skilled jobs, there is a Dh8,000 per month salary top-up for one year.