Women urged to fight for their rights

Educators at a seminar concerning government initiatives for women's empowerment in the UAE said women must take a more proactive role in ensuring societal equality with men.

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DUBAI // Women's organisations must rise above service roles and take steps to improve the rights of females in society, educators said during a seminar last week.

"Why is there no women activism in the UAE?" said Dr Souad Al Oraimi, a sociology professor at United Arab Emirates University, during a seminar at Dubai School of Government on Wednesday. The seminar addressed government initiatives for women's empowerment.

"What is needed is a female movement run by females and overseeing the implementation of the rights granted by the Government", she said.

Dr Al Oraimi and others who attended the seminar said Emirati women needed to take a more proactive role in realising full social acceptance.

Women in the UAE, said Dr Al Oraimi, are still not organised. This lack of organisation manifests itself in many forms, including the election of only one woman in last year's Federal National Council (FNC) elections, despite the fact that women made up 46 per cent of the electorate.

"The UAE female elite still do not yet have their own vision on how to seek their rights and gain social acceptance. These movements should evolve on a grassroots level and cannot be brought to our society in ready-made forms," she said.

Women's associations, according to Dr Al Oraimi, should transfer their role from service providers to women's rights advocates.

"The UAE women's union, and other bodies, are doing a great job in providing service for women in need, but maybe another role for them is needed. Women can, if they want, call for their rights through these organisations and thus make these bodies play a more active role in re-establishing their role in society," she said.

Some experts at the seminar said that women's rights activism has not only failed to advance with time, but has actually regressed.

"The role of these associations has gone several steps back," said Dr Rima Sabban, an assistant professor of sociology at Zayed University. "Emirati women have not only lost the power to protect their rights and change their conditions but are also falling short of defending the rights of women in their support network."

Dr Sabban also said that discussions about the success of government initiatives to empower women should also include the larger population of expatriate women in the UAE, not just Emiratis.

Dr Al Oraimi said the UAE constitution does not distinguish between Emirati women and men.

"Empowerment is not the sole responsibility of the government, but woman has a role in it as well," she said.

There are laws that support women, she said, including those that allow Emirati women to share property ownership. More important, she said, are efforts to increase the number of women in the FNC.

However, she said, some laws need to be more accommodating for women.

"The maternity leave in the UAE is one of the shortest in the world and this needs to change," she said.

Women in Government jobs get two months of paid maternity leave, while women in the private sector get 45 days.

During the seminar, Dr Al Oraimi said there are three pillars that determine women's empowerment in society: laws and regulations, social norms and women themselves.

"The acceptance of women's participation and empowerment is decided by society and not government," she said. "The society can put hold on certain rules or put obstacles to it."

She said UAE society is still centred around patrimonial values concerning women.

"These values play an important role in limiting women's empowerment," she said. "The men's power over them is still present and is being supported by social norms."