Dubai conference tackles gender politics

Emirati women are paired up with foreign students in an effort to dispel cultural myths and examine how far women have progressed.

"This time is not the same as before. Women now are very important," said Maryam Mohammed, a business and IT student, right, with her classmate Mariam Baniyas at the Insight Dubai conference.
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DUBAI // Conservative and constrained - that is the image many foreigners may have of the UAE's women.

But Emirati women themselves tell a somewhat different story, with many insisting that where they are conservative, it is because they prefer it that way. To that end, dozens of young Emirati women have spent much of this week trying to dispel foreigners' mistaken impressions of them.

At an Insight Dubai conference held at Dubai Women's College, 57 female students from Asia, Africa, Europe, America, and the Arab League, were each assigned an Emirati "buddy" to teach them about local culture and the rights of women in the Emirates.

The Emiratis took the opportunity to stress that they were treated as equals, that the UAE is not as conservative as some believe - and that they have more rights than ever before.

Although there are still some families who do not give their women a free hand in choosing their husband or their job, that is changing, according to some.

Maryam Baniyas, 20, a business and IT student, believes parents need to be more lenient when dealing with their daughters.

However, she said parents should remain to some extent conservative, in order to protect them.

She was, she told her Palestinian "buddy", the first woman in her family to be allowed to drive - "even though I am still not married," she said. "My parents watch TV and see people and know the new generation is different," she added.

Her classmate, Maryam Mohamed, 21, agreed. "This time is not the same as before though - after education, women have to do something. Women now are very important."

Amna Sulaiman, 21, a pharmacy student from Dubai, said many offices now have a large number of women staff.

"I would be able to move to Abu Dhabi for work because I already have family there," she said.

"I think this viewpoint will change, even dads change their views. It depends on the generation and how it changes."

Latifa Ahmed, 20, a pharmacy student, suggested that although women have more freedom than they did, it remained in their best interests to stay at home.

"Yes, women are half of society, and yes women have more freedom now," she said.

"We are not very conservative here in the Emirates. Islam is not trying to suppress women. We even have female ministers in the country.

"But women should live with her family for protection. A woman has all the rights she needs here. What else would she want?"

Both Hanan al Bloushi, 21, a communications student, and her classmate, Alia al Falasi, said their families would allow them to work away from home. "Our parents know in this field, we need to move around," said Miss al Falasi.

Without her parents' consent, she said, she would not consider leaving home, out of respect to her culture and religion.

On the issue of marriage, both students said they would prefer it to be arranged by their families. "This is best for us, we believe," said Miss al Bloushi. "It is not a bad thing - the girls here who have an arranged marriage, in this generation, usually want it themselves. My parents have my best interest at heart and know what I want."

Miss Ahmed added: "Many also ask me about the dowry, asking if it is a form of buying the women, but I explain to them no, it is given to a women as a gift.

"Even in arranged marriages, women have their own opinion, can say yes or no. "