President Sheikh Khalifa has called for Emirati women to occupy 50 per cent of the country's Federal National Council after next year's elections.
The directive was issued through the UAE Government Communication Office on Saturday, saying the decision would "further empower Emirati women and bolster their contributions to development".
Elections for a new set of FNC members will be held next year. Currently, there are eight women members — representing 20 per cent of the 40 available seats. The women include the Chairperson and Speaker of the FNC, Dr Amal Al Qubaisi, who became the first woman leader of a national assembly in the UAE and Arab world three years ago. Dr Al Qubaisi was also the first woman elected to the FNC in 2006.
On Saturday, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid threw his support behind the plans to further improve gender parity in government.
The Vice President and Ruler of Dubai said the decision "is a great leap forwards in cementing the legislative and parliamentary role of women in our nation's development."
"Women are half of our society: they should be represented as such," he said.
Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, congratulated Emirati women on the decision.
He argued the move was "an additional step to enhancing women's roles and contributions to national decision-making".
He said: "Emirati women are partners and supporters of our country's development and are models of giving and excellence. We wish them luck and success."
The directive will place the UAE among the countries with the most female representation in parliament, overtaking the UK and US where women make up about 32 per cent and 19 per cent of Parliament and Congress respectively, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Rwanda tops the world list of the most number of women in parliament with 61 per cent, followed by Bolivia with 53 per cent.
This year marks a milestone for women’s empowerment with a renewed drive for the female voice to resonate in public life, guiding legislation and speaking up for the community.
Saturday’s announcement is part of the UAE leadership’s goal to increase the number of women in top jobs in the government, diplomatic service, judiciary and in the overall labour market.
The directive will also encourage more women to vote and run for election.
Greater women representation the political sphere would add value to council discussions and ensure topics of concern to the community are raised, said Emirati citizens and FNC members who welcomed the announcement on Saturday.
Dr Al Qubaisi told the UAE's state news agency, Wam: "This historic step is a first in the Arab world and it culminates the full empowerment of the UAE women."
Afra Al Basti, FNC member and director general of the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, said the decree would give a greater political platform to women.
“It will have a positive effect in integration levels and will reflect in legislation where women can have their own views heard in relation to the social, economic and political laws of the UAE,” said Ms Al Basti, who has represented Dubai for two terms.
“Women reflect the community as they are very close to family and issues related to the people. This will lift all women because they want to work hard and leave a mark behind them.”
Women FNC members lend their voices to debates ranging from granting citizenship to sons of Emirati mothers and longer maternity leave to flagging up concerns about long working hours of teachers and the need for sustained training.
“There isn’t a single parliamentary issue or debate that women have not played a role in. Political empowerment has given women great strength,” said Naama Al Sharhan, the first woman to represent Ras al Khaimah in the FNC after winning a seat in the 2015 elections.
“Women are the soul of parliament,” she said.
It is not yet clear whether the women members will be appointed by the government or if specific seats will be reserved for women to increase representation to 50 per cent.
The new faces will join the next legislative session in October next year after the four-year term of the current committee ends.
Sheikha Manal bint Mohammed bin Rashid said the directive showed the government\s clear support for the objectives of the UAE Gender Balance Council, of which she is chairwoman. Those goals include helping the UAE become one of the top 25 countries in the United Nations’s Gender Inequality Index by 2021.
“Raising women’s representation to half in the new electoral cycle of the FNC will strengthen their role in shaping the future of the UAE,” Sheikha Manal said.
Women hold important positions in a variety of fields across the Emirates. Nine members of the UAE Cabinet are women and others hold positions in vital sectors such as the diplomatic service, engineering, medicine and law.
Women occupy 66 per cent of government jobs and at least half are in decision-making positions, according to data from the General Women’s Union. They account for more than 46 per cent of the country’s workforce, up from around 6.2 per cent only in the early 1980s.
“Wherever you go whether in business, ministries or government, there are more women so our numbers also should go higher,” said Hamad Al Rahoomi, a Dubai FNC member.
“It is the right of the women to be in the FNC. They will be excited to vote and it will inspire more women to want to be in the FNC. This is what we need.”
The decision was a powerful message to the younger generation, said Dr Ibtesam Al Bastaki, director of investment and private partnership with the Dubai Health Authority, who has held senior government and private roles in the health sector.
“Not many countries in the world have this strong representation. It is important for the next generation of women because it shows they can have a strong role as decision makers and give back to the community,” said Dr Al Bastaki.
“Women now hold different positions from ministers to ambassadors to director general and chief executives. This will open a lot of doors, show the world there is equality here between men and women, there is no restriction nor are certain fields only for men.”