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Khalid Al Ameri: Emirati Women’s Day: Our chance to rewrite history
August 28, 2015
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

This year it was announced that August 28th of each year would be known as Emirati Women’s Day. The day would be one that women of the United Arab Emirates would be recognised for their achievements and contributions to the country. I couldn’t be happier that a day like this is being created at a national level. At the same time I hope it will allow all the citizens and residents of the UAE to reflect more on the role of women in society today, as well as their role in how our country came to be.

I remember discussing the UAE’s history with my classmates while I lived in the United States. Many UAE nationals love the opportunity to discuss their country as well as the various moments throughout history that have shaped the place we all call home today. However this one discussion was different, because someone raised a question that we should have been asking ourselves a long time ago, “What about the women?”

“What do you mean?” I responded. My classmate then further explained, “Well, you talked about your history as Bedouins who travelled the harshest deserts, the pearl fisherman who would be out for months at sea, your founding father Sheikh Zayed and the many Sheikhs and tribal leaders who united the Emirates. You talked about the culture of poetry and falconry that are still alive today. You talked about the many political, economic and social leaders who led the dramatic change in the Emirates upon the discovery of oil. Where were the women while all this was going on?”

It was then I realised that the history we are quick to share is built around a narrative that is very much dominated by the male side of the story. Let me give you a small example of the everyday Emirati who is asked about her or his country’s history, let’s take something popular like pearl diving.

Pearl diving was a big deal in the UAE’s history, for a time our economy depended on it. As such we celebrate the pearl divers, learning about all the hardships they had to endure, viewing them as heroes of a past we never knew. The only issue with that is we quickly forget that while pearl divers were out at sea for up to four months at a time, the women, their wives, mothers, sisters or aunts were responsible for pretty much everything else.

Women had to attend to any business, agriculture needs and working the land. Women were solely responsible for raising and educating the children. Women had to protect the family’s home and land. They were the soldiers holding fort, guarding it until their loved ones returned home safely.

On top of all the endless responsibilities, our women had to deal with the desert’s harsh landscape that showed absolutely no mercy to anyone who stood on its grounds. For all those in the military service, think about it as the intensive induction programme you went through, only for them it didn’t end.

Houses were made of leaves and clay, there were no ACs to cool them, housekeepers to help them, cars to transport them, or medical care to heal them, they had nothing. Just their hands and feet to work, and their strong spirit to carry them through the toughest times. All their hard work built the foundation of the UAE, if they didn’t persevere the pearl divers would have nothing to come back to, nothing.

A day like Emirati Women’s Day gives us all the opportunity to start shifting the male-dominated narrative of the UAE we are so quick and proud to share. Sure the pearl divers and Bedouins make for a better story, but those stories only make up a few pages of a book that is filled with chapters of the many contributions our women have made to the country throughout history. It is just as important that those stories are talked about with just as much enthusiasm and excitement.

You may be wondering why I chose to focus on the history of UAE women rather than their future. Well to be frank it’s because women are doing everything they need to do today to succeed. They continue to rise to the occasion, to make the most of the opportunities available today, to answer the call to support their country and its people in every way they can.

Late last year the Ministry of Labour released data stating that women make up 66 per cent of the UAE’s government workforce. Additionally, according to statistics published by the UAE Embassy in the United States, 3 out of every 5 students in the public higher education system are women. Furthermore, 77 per cent of UAE females continue on to higher education from high school, where UAE national women represent 24 per cent more than the number of UAE national men enrolled.

This year brought about one of the biggest changes to our way of life, National Service. Women have again only proven that their standards of excellence academically, socially, and professionally, are standards they are now taking into protecting our nations and its people. Reports show that women are filling up the national recruitment centres eager to serve, even when military service for women is still only optional.

The late President Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan is quoted as saying, “Nothing would delight me more than to see the woman taking up her distinctive position in society. Nothing should hinder her progress. Like men, women deserve the right to occupy high positions according to their capabilities and qualifications.”

It’s like UAE women took every single word he said to heart, and made it their point to bring those words to life. We are seeing more women leaders heading up government, private organisations than ever before.

We are seeing UAE women consistently make up the ranks of the most powerful women in the region and the world. I said in a previous article that I believe in ten years Emirati women would be the driving force behind the UAE, to be honest I think they already are.

So I am not worried about women of the UAE today, they are doing phenomenal things in all walks of life, and I have no doubt that they will only continue to prosper. Our leaders realise this and are investing heavily in providing the right leadership and growth opportunities for women.

Maybe then we can take this day to rewrite history, to celebrate the brave women of the UAE’s past who prevailed in the harshest environments, who stayed strong for their country and their families in the face of the hardest challenges, who gave everything they had when there was nothing left to give. In a way they were the first army the UAE ever had, and they deserve to have their story told.

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The author is a columnist on education and youth development.

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