Not so long ago few Emirati women had access to education and even fewer had the opportunity to work, but all this has changed in recent years says Dr Fatima Al Sayegh
It’s easy to presume that because their husbands were the breadwinners in the family for decades, Emirati women of previous generations had little influence when it came to decisions about their families and indeed society in general.
But this, according to Dr Fatima Al Sayegh, the Associate Professor of History and Archaeology at the UAE University in Al Ain, could not be further from the truth. The doctor, who’s also the author of numerous books on the history of the UAE and the Gulf, points out that because their husbands were often away from home for long periods of time, Emirati women held considerable influence both at home and in society.
“In the past, Emirati women had a big influence [on society], although they were always to be found behind the scenes,” Dr Al Sayegh tells Al Shindagah. “They strongly influenced decisions about their families too because the men were often absent, sometimes for six months at a time working on pearl banks.
“As a result, in the middle-classes of the UAE the women were the decision makers of the family and in the lower classes women worked as market traders,” she continues. “Of course, Emirati women also played a big role in controlling what happened in society.”
Dr Al Sayegh herself grew up in a family with nine siblings (four girls and five boys) in Bur Dubai. Her family home still stands near the Dubai Museum, which is in the Bastakiya heritage area. It was a happy childhood she recalls.
“I have good memories of the Creek, the Bur Dubai Souk and Bastakiya. There was little else in Dubai up until 1970. Jumeirah was somewhere we never thought of going as children, because it was just a village.”
Although these days it’s common for young people growing up in the city to acquire a third level education, few Emirati women went to university when Dr Sayegh was young. She was fortunate however that her father was a great advocate of learning and encouraged all his children to study. This meant that, not only she, but all her siblings attended university abroad. In fact there are three medical doctors in her family.
“That was my father’s influence – I cannot say it was typical of the time,” she says. “His father – my grandfather - was a pearl merchant, but he insisted that his son got an education. There were some people in this region who had foresight, although the standard of education here was not great,” she adds.
With a PhD from Essex University and an MA from the University of Wisconsin, Dr Al Sayegh has specialised in the UAE’s community and history; women of the Emirates and the Gulf; the role of missionaries in the region; and the economic and social history of the Gulf.
She’s also written numerous books on the history of the Gulf, including UAE – from Tribe to State; Gulf History – Political Structure, and Social and Economic Development; Dubai: Outsets and Transformations; and Challenges of Historical Origins Facing the UAE. She’s currently writing another which focuses on the history of the UAE from 1971 to 2011.
Research for her latest book took her to two seminaries in the US – one in Massachusetts and the other in Philadelphia. The latter houses a huge collection of documents about the UAE, written by missionaries who were posted here to the UAE from 1891 to 1970. It’s from these fascinating documents that she gained much of her knowledge about the role of Emirati women in society. And in studying the past, she’s aware of the great strides that have been made in women’s rights and their social standing in the UAE in recent years.
“I think what Emirati women have been given in the last 40 years is marvellous. They are now supported by the political leaders in the UAE and most importantly, all their rights have been given to them without them having to ask,” she explains. “It’s as if the leaders knew what they [the UAE women] wanted.”
Education for women was introduced in the late 1950s in Sharjah and Dubai started providing education from the 1960s; The majority of women embraced it. “Education played a big role in changing the status and outlook of women here,” Dr Al Sayegh says, “Everything changed for women from the moment it was introduced.”
This meant that women were now in a position to study and many went on to become teachers or doctors – jobs that were previously the preserve of men. During the 1970s and 1980s women started to be employed in both these fields.
And although Emirati men were at first a little reluctant for the women to be educated and enter the work force, this quickly changed once they realised that not only were they needed, but they could contribute financially.
“Teachers and doctors were needed back then,” says Dr Al Sayegh “And because they didn’t mix with men in these fields, women working came to be accepted.
“If the women had started by working in the private sector first. They might have found more resistance; but society accepted them as public sector workers. What’s more, they were contributing to the ‘family’s finances.’”
She points out that in the UAE today, almost one quarter of Emirati women contribute financially to the household budget.
As time went on, the women started to demand access to other fields, like law. And by the mid-1980s women were working in the private sector. In fact today the private sector is more popular amongst young Emirati women seeking employment.
“The private sector is more popular because it offers opportunities for promotion, better pay and better training,” explains Dr Sayegh.
They came to the working environment a little later than women in the West, so it will be interesting to see what will happen next. Will women in the UAE continue to work and raise families at the same time, or will they chose to return to the confines of the home?
“I think if we were given a choice of staying at home or working, we would chose to work,” Dr Al Sayegh says. “As women, we feel privileged to have jobs. For us it’s an opportunity to see the outside world”.