New generation of Emirati women breaking down social barriers

From pilots to engineers and pioneers in renewable energy and diplomacy, women are singlehandedly putting the UAE on the map.
Sunday 22/04/2018
Emirati commercial pilot Bakhita al-Muhairi. (The Arab Weekly)
Shattering stereotypes. Emirati commercial pilot Bakhita al-Muhairi. (The Arab Weekly)

Abu Dhabi - Despite old-school stereotypes of women in the Middle East and the role they play in society, young Emirati females are breaking down barriers and leading the country and the region into a new era of modernisation.

From pilots to engineers and pioneers in renewable energy and diplomacy, women are singlehandedly putting the United Arab Emirates, and the Gulf, on the map.

“We get a lot of support from our government, especially when it comes to choosing our career,” said Bakhita al-Muhairi, a 24-year-old Emirati commercial pilot in the UAE. “Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, said himself that your job doesn’t ask for your gender.”

One of the youngest Emirati female pilots in the country, Muhairi was confronted with surprised and confused reactions when she first started out her career with Emirates Airline.

“I got some pushback from some people but it’s very normal,” she said. “It doesn’t make anyone right or wrong, we just see life differently. People abroad were surprised when they would see me but I’m the kind of person who lives my life and I try to be a thick-skinned person, so I don’t care who looks at me.”

The Dubai-born Emirati, who attended the Emirates National Cadet Pilot Programme, has her picture taken many times in airports by stunned travellers. “They’ve never seen a female Muslim pilot wearing a hijab,” she said. “We’re not many but, when they see somebody who’s wearing a hijab and flying a plane, they have so many questions and I try to be approachable and answer.”

Some of the questions include whether Islam allows women to fly, to which she replies that nothing stops a woman from being whatever she chooses to be.

“There are so many stereotypes that women shouldn’t work and stay home and raise kids, or am I doing this against my parents’ or my country’s will,” Muhairi said. “One Afghani female pilot went around the world specifically to change that stereotype and change people’s mindset. That’s when I realised that it’s not just me but women around the world struggle with different opinions about what they do.”

Much has improved for women in the Middle East, especially in a country such as the UAE, which created the Gender Balance Council to help empower women in 2015.

It also has more women in its government percentage-wise than the United States, with almost 30% of the UAE’s cabinet positions occupied by females.

Jawaher al-Mehairi, 25, became another example when she was selected as the UAE ambassador to the UN Youth Assembly. As the first Emirati to have such a role, her job is to promote the platform in the UAE and represent young Emiratis at the United Nations.

“My presence on these platforms was a coincidence at first but I noticed it was very necessary because our country needs people who are well aware of what the society and community needs,” she said. “I want to carry the UAE’s message to the world: We’re a young country but we’re not behind.”

She said Emirati women were proud, especially given how high the UAE ranks in its gender distribution in different sectors. “We’re very lucky as we’re getting all the attention of the government,” Mehairi said. “People respect us a lot. The days of women thinking their place is at home are gone. They can take care of their families but they should improve themselves, because a competitive and well-capable woman will inspire the next generation.”

Fatma al-Attar, a 19-year-old student of international studies at Zayed University in Dubai, said social media depict the reality of the Arab world better than traditional media.

“In the West, they think of us as women who don’t have rights in society and who always depend on men,” she said. “Last year, American students came to our university — they didn’t even know we could drive or have our own cars so they were really surprised about how we lived.”

She is studying Korean and Chinese to be fluent in four languages. “It’s not difficult, as long as you’re inspired and dedicated to learn, you’ll succeed,” she said. “We’ve changed as Emiratis.”

She said Emirati societies had transformed since the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, the founder of the UAE, and more rights were given to women. “We have more female political participation in the UAE than the US does,” she said. “It’s incomparable and people should not give in to stereotypes.”

Most women blame Western media for the flawed portrayal of their image. “Bits and pieces might have been added in the past without being checked or reviewed,” said Aysha al-Remeithi, a 22-year-old Emirati who started out as an engineer specialising in sustainable and renewable energy.

“I see more women going up in this region because our government definitely pushes women forward, more than in any other country in the Middle East and North Africa,” she said. “Our minister of youth is 22 and she went to Oxford. That, in itself, shows the country’s forward thinking.”

The UAE is also encouraging its young people — male and female — to get create youth empowerment initiatives such as the Emirates Youth Council, which Remeithi is a part of.

“In 50 years, the country transformed itself from a desert to one of the most major tourist attractions in the world,” she said. “Women are keeping up with the pace of the country and they are portraying the rightful image of what an Arab woman is — equal to the other gender.”

The young woman attended Al-Maktoum College of Higher Education in Dundee, Scotland, where she learned about globalisation and the importance of building bridges between the East and the West. She was one of 70 female students from the UAE, Malaysia and Egypt.

“It taught me leadership and women empowerment, along with Scottish and UAE history,” she said. “I learned how history affected globalisation and everything is interconnected — the whole world, in itself, has to be on the same page today.”