Most women donate money, not time

Emirati women are making strides in business and education, but their level of participation in voluntary and civic groups is low.

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ABU DHABI // Emirati women are making strides in business and education, but their level of participation in voluntary and civic groups is low, according to a UAE University professor who is conducting a national survey to find out why. The younger generation in particular has a minimal involvement in activism, charitable work and community groups, and most voluntary organisations and social groups are 80 to 90 per cent male, said Dr Fatima al Sayegh, a professor in UAE history and society. Through the survey, to begin next week, Dr Sayegh aims to query 400 students and working women across the Emirates to better understand why some women volunteer and others do not.

"When you look at the UAE, women nowadays are playing a big role in business life," she said, "but when it comes to volunteering work and civil activism, they are under represented. So we start asking ourselves: What's wrong? Why are women not participating?" According to a recent study by the Emirates Sociological Association, the number of volunteers in general has been dropping since 1990. While drives for urgent and immediate humanitarian relief projects remain popular, few are making longer-term commitments.

Dr Sayegh said a combination of factors had led to a lack of participation. Civil society groups, she noted, are not adapting themselves to attract a younger generation of women and students. But if young people want to have a role in shaping their society, she said, then they should be forming their own organisations. After the survey is complete, UAE University plans to run workshops to teach women how to found and operate NGOs so women can play a more active role in the future of the country. The law allows a group with more than 25 members to establish itself as an official society.

In her 2008 publication Women in Civil Society, The State, Islamism, and Networks in the UAE, the sociologist Wanda Krause said 24 out of 28 women she talked to at UAE women's organisations were fully paid, with many taking jobs simply because they offered good salaries and a women-only workplace. "Volunteerism is lacking," she said. Dr Sayegh called the UAE "a wonderful example of development" but said the social aspect of development was not as obvious.

"The younger generation is used to a certain life just based on take," she said. "They don't want to give. They only know how to give money, which they give generously, but we don't just want money. We want time. And when they give time they will gain a lot." Since families also may object to women taking part in community and charitable groups, Dr Sayegh said, it was often difficult to persuade students to participate even in campus-based activities, let alone outside projects.

Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, widow of the late Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the UAE, set up the Abu Dhabi Women's Society, the UAE's first women's organisation, in 1972. Since then the work and reach of this and similar organisations have rapidly expanded. Such groups are essential in discussing developments pertaining to women's empowerment and family issues, Dr Sayegh said, "but women should also be participating in other community groups and forums".

"I admire the work that Sheikha Fatima is doing," Dr Sayegh said. "She's a great role model, but they don't just need role models who are princesses and Sheikhas. They need role models from the middle class, too." Dr Sayegh's survey, which received a funding grant from the US government's Middle East Partnership Initiative, will take place over the next month.