Traditional Roles

January 11, 1994
Abu Dhabi, UAE

When we decided to move here, I had hoped that we would get to know and befriend some of the local people.  So far that’s proving to be a challenge, for a number of reasons. 

First, less than twenty per cent of the population of the UAE comprises UAE nationals – the most recent figure I've seen is 16 per cent; 84 per cent consists of expatriate workers

Most of the labourers (i.e. construction workers, gardeners, hospitality industry personnel, retail personnel, etc.) are from the subcontinent or Southeast Asia (mostly the Philippines).  The vast majority of clerical workers, and some of the retail salespeople are non-national Arabs.  Technical people, teachers, and managers are mostly non-national Arabs and white male Europeans and North Americans.

Hidden Treasures?

Second, the Arab nationals, although hospitable to a fault, also highly value their privacy. They have a tribal history, and tend to socialize primarily with members of their extended families.  There are many tribal customs, which are still practiced today and which reinforce the exclusion of outsiders, even from within their own culture.

For example, marriage amongst cousins, especially the offspring of two brothers, is considered to be a most desirable matrimonial match.  However, there are some indications that the UAE leadership is beginning to discourage inter-marriage between extended family members because of the relatively high frequency of genetic defects and handicapped offspring.

Third, the sexes continue to be segregated within the national population even though expatriate men and women often work shoulder to shoulder.  National women generally do not work outside the home.  You would rarely, if ever, see a national woman out for dinner with her husband, unless they were in the family section of a fast-food restaurant with their children (usually at least three, sometimes as many as six or seven).

National women are discouraged from speaking to national men outside of their immediate family.  They are permitted however, to converse with non-national servants, shopkeepers, etc.  Almost all social activities, including weddings, are segregated by sex.  (If Bobby and I were invited to a UAE national's home, I would be taken to the women's quarters while he visited with the men.)

Basic Black

Very infrequently will you see national women out alone except at the "souk" (market) or the supermarket.  When you do see them, even when they are accompanied by a male member of their family (i.e. husband, son, father, brother), they are mostly covered from head to toe in a black.

Many wear a semi-sheer black veil over their face in addition to the traditional black “shayla,” which covers the head, hair, and shoulders and a black “abaya,” which they wear over colourful “kandouras” (long, shapeless tunics that are usually brightly coloured, and beautifully decorated with embroidery and beading at the neck and cuffs).  The kandouras are hidden under the abayas and shaylas so the women look a bit austere when out in public.

Some UAE National women also wear a stiff face mask called a “burka,” which consists of a band around the forehead, a strip that covers the nose, and another band that completely covers the mouth.  The masks are shiny and metallic looking, but I'm told they're made of burnished gold fabric.

In Oman, the women wear burkas that are beak-like and black.  A few women go as far as wearing black gloves and socks to cover their hands and feet so that absolutely no skin shows when they are in public.

The dress code, the customs and the seclusion make it extraordinarily difficult to meet, let alone initiate a conversation with a national woman.  It's much easier to make contact with national men!  In fact they will often actively pursue expatriate women who, by and large, are considered "loose" and thus fair game.

Susan notes in 2008: While many of the dangerous driving habits described in previous letters still prevail, the role of UAE National women has changed dramatically in the last 15 years.

Today, women outnumber men in some UAE universities and colleges. They are becoming increasingly important to the national economy; employers actively seek them out for their skills, positive attitude and excellent work ethic.

The UAE leadership strongly encourages the inclusion of women in the economic, political and social sectors. UAE National women have responded by becoming more involved in all aspects of the economy, while maintaining their traditional roles as heads of the household. Like women around the world, they sometimes find it challenging to juggle all their responsibilities at the same time.

Many UAE National women still prefer to don their traditional dress when in public, although few choose to wear the burka. Islamic fashion has it’s own special look in which shoes, handbags and creative ways of “glamourising” the basic black abaya result in a wonderfully feminine and stylish appearance.

Nowadays, UAE National women are seen everywhere. Through their contributions in both traditional roles (as wives and mothers), and in newer roles as career women, they are collectively a credit to their country, their families and themselves.