Emirati official tells of tackling gender stereotyping of Arab women

Speaking to 'The National' on International Women's Day, Razan Al Mubarak says an institutional approach has ensured female advancement in the UAE

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 09 JANUARY 2020. Razan Mubarak for an interview on the upcoming Heroes of Sustainability series. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Mustafa AlRawi. Section: National.
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When it comes to stereotypes, women around the world face different experiences depending on their background, their cultural setting, their industry and a whole host of other variables.

Most are based on a lack of knowledge.

A top Emirati government leader has spoken of the gender stereotyping she and other Arab women have faced when on the international stage.

Razan Al Mubarak, the first woman to serve as secretary general of the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, is campaigning to be president of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The organisation is responsible for the Red List of Threatened Species, a comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of animal and plant species.

Ms Al Mubarak is running against two other candidates for the role, and the election takes place in September.

Perhaps now that I am campaigning, I am struck more by the residual stereotype of an Arab woman
Razan Al Mubarak, Environment Agency Abu Dhabi

If successful, she will become the first Arab woman to lead the organisation – and only the second woman to hold the position since it was established almost 75 years ago.

It will also top a long list of personal firsts for Ms Al Mubarak over the course of her 20-year career.

Speaking to The National on International Women's Day, she said female empowerment is a journey and challenging stereotypes is a "duty".

“I am always asked this question about, 'have you encountered stereotypes in your work'?” said Ms Al Mubarak, 41, who is from Abu Dhabi.

“I can honestly say that I wasn’t stereotyped. Maybe I was too young and too naive to recognise that I had been stereotyped early in my career," she said.

"But I am hearing more [stereotypes] internationally now that I am campaigning, than I ever had in the UAE.

"Perhaps now that I am campaigning, I am struck more by the residual stereotype of an Arab woman, and it has been a great privilege be able to turn this on its head.”

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 30 SEPTEMBER 2018. Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, Secretary General of the Enviroment Agency, Abu Dhabi, at the Artificial Intelligence Conference. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Alkesh Sharma. Section: Business.

Ms Al Mubarak is one of many women working in the scientific field in the UAE, a fact many observers outside the country – and even some living in the Emirates – appear not to know.

Women account for more than half of UAE graduates who hold degrees in science, technology, engineering or maths and Ms Al Mubarak said four of the primary environmental agencies and groups in the country are led by women.

These organisations are: the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, Emirates Nature – World Wildlife Fund and the Emirates Environmental Group.

Not only that, but half the members of the Federal National Council, the country's advisory legislature, are women, as well as a third of the Cabinet.

And women in the UAE fare better than most peers in terms of equal pay, says Ms Al Mubarak.

“According to the World Economic Forum, the UAE ranks second in wage equity,” she said.

“So you see we have made all of these strides in gender equity.

"And what I want to say – especially since we are such a transient population, with people coming for two years and perhaps not recognising  – is that actually, this movement started way before these modern times, with the establishment of the country."

Khalifa Al Mubarak was UAE ambassador to France from 1980 until he was assassinated in 1984. Courtesy: Al Ittihad

Her father, Khalifa Al Mubarak, served as the UAE's ambassador to France from 1980 until his death on February 8, 1984, when he was assassinated outside his Paris apartment.

The Arab Revolutionary Brigades claimed responsibility for the killing.

The group also claimed responsibility for blowing up Gulf Air Flight 771 from Karachi to Abu Dhabi in 1983, killing 112 passengers and crew.

Ms Al Mubarak has childhood memories of taking part in programmes created by the General Women's Union, which was founded in 1974 by Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, the Mother of the UAE.

A history of emancipation

“What they were doing then was investing in social infrastructure to ensure that we go through this cultural revolution understanding that we will not be able to successfully develop, if we do not empower women,” Ms Al Mubarak said.

“It’s [thanks to] this sort of consistent and institutionalised vision from the earliest, from the Founding Fathers and Mothers of the UAE, that we are now reaping the benefits.”

Ms Al Mubarak's own story started 20 years ago, after returning from the US with a degree in environmental studies and international relations.

She was driving one day in the capital when she spotted a sign for the Environment Research and Wildlife Development Agency, which preceded the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi.

Razan Al Mubarak, secretary general of Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, with a turtle she helped tag before releasing it into Abu Dhabi's waters in April 2018. Courtesy: Environment Agency Abu Dhabi

Ms Al Mubarak says she walked in and asked to join.

She did join, and later went on to establish Emirates Nature – WWF, an affiliate of the WWF. She is now managing director of the UAE group.

It had an urgent task, to help protect the UAE’s environment from the rapid pace of development.

It seems to be a little bit, almost misleading, to say the successful woman is a working woman and even better if she is a mother because she has to balance work and life

“It was a race against time. We didn’t have the experience,” she said.

“We didn’t necessarily have the legislation to begin, but the development was happening so quickly. So you really had to be innovative and catch up and continuously engage with [others].”

In 2008, she became the founding managing director of the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund. The organisation provides small, targeted grants for thousands of grass roots conservation projects around the world.

In 2011, Ms Al Mubarak became the first woman to serve as secretary general of the Environment Agency. Seven years later, she was promoted to its board of directors, a post she still holds today.

Challenge of work-life balance

Many would consider her to be the definition of a successful woman, balancing a busy career with the demands of being a mother to her four-year-old daughter.

Yet this description makes her uncomfortable.

“It seems to be a little bit, almost misleading, to say the successful woman is a working woman, and even better if she is a mother because she has to balance work and life.

“I find that limiting. I think it’s important that we celebrate all types of women – working women, non-working women, mothers, single women," said Ms Al Mubarak.

“I have led an institution of 1,000 employees and then I became a mother afterwards. Motherhood is much more challenging than leading a 1,000-plus institution.

"And perhaps sometimes maybe we don’t necessarily celebrate that enough.”