Empowering women
through the
Federal National Council 

By Sangeetha Swaroop

“Nothing could 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.”
– Late His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

The UAE women, today, live in a much different time than at the time of the union of the seven separate emirates on December 2, 1971. It is thanks to the far-sighted vision of the nation’s enlightened leaders that over the last 35 years, the role of women in the UAE too has expanded in line with the country’s development. Since its foundation, the UAE has underlined the woman’s role and rights. In fact, the human development process has covered on an equal basis the rights of men and women in the fields of education, health, social services and work.

However, even prior to this, and indeed, throughout the history of the region, UAE women have always been a vital part of their society. In the days when pearling and fishing were the chief occupations, it was seen that women were responsible for the agricultural livelihood of the family, as well as for raising children. While these duties could be said to be similar to those of women in other nations, what is remarkably different is the environment in which the women here had to perform these tasks. The harsh landscape of the desert offered no easy way out, and hence, the women of this region earned a great deal of respect for their ability to work the land.

While ambition and the will to work hard were strongly prevalent, what hindered the progress of women until recently was the absence of a proper, formal education. At the time of the nation’s birth there were perhaps just a handful of educated women and the country too, was just at the threshold of embarking on a hitherto unseen and unrivalled ambitious development plan. Today, this so-called desert land is teeming with towering skyscrapers, has attracted citizens from across the globe, is the hub of the Middle East trade and commerce, and boasts the most modern schools, hospitals, banking institutions and other service industries.

What makes these achievements more remarkable is that along with its rapid development has come about the evolvement of its women too, no doubt, fostered by the principle of universal education. Today, females in state schools outnumber men. In addition 65 per cent UAE university graduates being women are considered an educated pool of talent to meet the growth targets of the UAE economy.

Even UN statistics indicate that the UAE is among the most developed nations in educating females. From a conservative tradition where hardship was the norm, through education, under a benign government whose priority has always been women’s issues, women in the UAE have literally blossomed, achieving the highest rate of development in the Arab countries. Little wonder that these formidable and meritworthy achievements caused the late President to remark thus, “The achievements of women in the United Arab Emirates in such a short time has made me happy and convinced me that what we planted yesterday will today start to bear fruit.”

Good education has enabled women to take up a wide range of careers and positions with private and public sector firms and the UAE has actively promoted the presence of women in the workplace. Women comprised 15 percent of the labour force in 2000. In the same year, 100 per cent of nursery school teachers, 74 per cent of primary school teachers, and 54 per cent of secondary school teachers are women. Overall, 39.8 percent of government workers are female, with 30 per cent of them holding management positions and 70 per cent working as teachers, doctors, pharmacists and others.

In recent years, the government has also encouraged women to become police officers and volunteers in the military. Indeed, UAE women have advanced to such a degree that they are now ready to play a direct role in the decision-making process of the country.

It was a matter of national pride therefore when, on November 1, 2004, the UAE appointed a woman in a ministerial position for the first time in its history as the late Sheikh Zayed passed a federal decree appointing Sheikha Lubna Al-Qasimi as minister of economy and trade.

Clearly, women have firmly entrenched their names in the progress of the country’s development, but it must also be admitted that much of the gains women have achieved is due, in large part, to the pioneering efforts of the First Lady in the UAE, Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, towards the development and empowerment of women. Encouraged by her husband Sheikh Zayed, she played a major role in the setting up of the UAE’s Women’s Federation in 1975, the initial goals of which focused on promoting education and eradicating illiteracy.

Once these primary needs were met adequately, Sheikha Fatima began to aggressively campaign for the women of the UAE to work in the media and become members of the country's parliamentary assembly, the Federal National Council. This campaign was also supported by Sheikh Zayed who has often said that a woman is an equal partner with her male compatriot in all walks of life and has the full fight to participate in political life and decision-making.
UAE women today live in a golden age in which they have reached the highest positions. And, according to Sheikha Fatima, society as a whole will benefit enormously if the UAE enters the 21st century empowered by the participation of women in all walks of life, particularly the political arena. This, she considers, is a natural development, women having excelled in all other fields. It was only a matter of time before Sheikha Fatima’s call for women to enter the FNC was translated into reality in December 2006 when a woman, Mrs. Amal Al-Qaisi became the first elected female member of the Federal National Council (parliament) and the rulers of the various emirates appointed eight other women to the FNC as part of their jurisdiction to nominate 20 appointed members. Thus, the current FNC includes nine women out of its 40 members.
The appointment of women to the UAE parliament has been hailed as a step that would enrich the country’s democratic process. The women members now constitute 22.2 percent of the FNC, a figure that is higher than some countries in Europe. The women are among the 20 nominated members of the 40-member house. The first ever elections to the Federal National Council have been remarkable for the participation of women and for the election of one woman to the influential advisory body, formed under the Provisional Constitution of the UAE in 1971 as a permanent component of the country’s governance structure.
The December elections were unprecedented in more than one way, for it was the first time that women were eligible for inclusion in the country’s consultative council. More than 1,000 women were among the 6,595 members of the Electoral College; and all were eligible to stand for election as well as to vote. The very fact that the Rulers appointed eight women as members reflects the seriousness of the UAE Government in bringing women to the fore in active participation in society.
In a commentary published in the Gulf News soon after this historic event, Prof. Mohammad Abdullah Al Mutawa who teaches sociology at the UAE University at Al Ain wrote that women have made their “political presence through media and meetings with electoral commissions” and that “such awareness and activity indicate that the UAE woman has exceeded her role from an observer to a real player in the local area”.

Amal Al-Qaisi, the first elected female member also remarked that “this is an honour I will carry all my life. It is proof that the Emirati people are politically aware.”
The Federal National Council in its 14th Legislative chapter does not differ in its constitutional essence from the national councils throughout the past 35 years. The new council has a new chairman, an extensive female presence and half of its members were elected in a free, though limited, election.

The existence of the female element is a gain for the UAE women's movement and another step towards empowerment, putting women at the heart of national service, and closer to the political decision-making centre. Women’s presence also helps to increase its international profile abroad.

Throughout its history, the Council has influenced the Federal Government to draft laws. Original draft laws from the Cabinet were amended by the Council to suit the needs of the citizens which they represent. The FNC is also seen as a forum where members are able to question ministers. Cabinet members are often grilled over issues of concern by members during debates. The history of the Council also shows that the majority of its recommendations and amendments have been adopted and included in laws by the government.

The mix of appointed and elected FNC members not only promotes democratic openness but also adds a touch of political modernity. Almost 75 per cent of its members were born just after the Federation was formed which reveals the extent of trust in the young generation. This generation has proved its ability to lead and take over responsibility from the generation of the founding fathers in administrative, development and leadership roles, leading the UAE towards internationalism.

On the opening day of the Federal National Council (FNC), while women members conveyed their determination to play an active role on the council, Najla Al Awadi, a FNC member, remarked to the Emirates Today newspaper: “I feel that we have entered a new stage in the history of the UAE.

“If we look at the United Sates and Europe, women had to struggle for more than 100 years to get the right to vote. Here in the UAE, within 35 years women got the right not only to vote, but also to be members of the council. This is a great achievement. We are optimistic of more positive changes in the future.” She reiterated the determination of the women members to be active legislators, “We will work as hard as the men, or even harder, to prove that there is no difference between the capabilities of men and women.”

Meanwhile, Fatima Ghanem Al Marri, another female FNC member, had this to say: “It is a great experience and a great responsibility. We face a challenge to prove to our President and the people that we are capable of meeting their expectations.” Al Marri added that being part of the FNC is like a dream come true. “This is a dream that the late President His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan implanted in us, the women of the UAE. He helped us to dream big and showed us the way to achieve our dreams.

“He gave women great opportunities and looked after our welfare. He also taught us to seek positions of leadership. And now, we have achieved his dream.”


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