The National celebrated its second birthday recently, and although it has only been around for 24 months, its impact has been heavily felt across the UAE and the region.
This occasion also allowed me to recall the very first article I wrote, The pen, the book and a boss in an abaya, which tackled the rise of women in the UAE and the Gulf. Two years on, that phenomenon is becoming stronger and is widespread across the country.
The numbers are quite interesting. In UAE national universities, more than 60 per cent of the student body is female. The ratio of national female participation in the workforce is also rising. But these rather impressive achievements have created their own social impacts that deserve consideration.
There are certainly some repercussions to the increase in the levels of education of Emirati women. Already, one can easily assess through a quick survey that the size of families is smaller when levels of education increases.
It was not uncommon, for instance, for Emirati families that were formed in the 1960s and 70s to have six or seven children. But these numbers have decreased to three or four today – provided that Emirati women choose to marry and have kids in the first place.
At the outset, it is important to dispute the widely held notion that an unmarried woman, who may be as young as her mid-twenties, is a spinster. This is sexist and denotes that women are somehow less worthy than men and are duty-bound to procreate. It is also interesting that the word “bachelorette” isn’t commonly used for women, who choose not to marry or decide to marry later in life.
However, as the ratio of educated and successful women continues to grow, the number of available bachelors for them to marry will continue to dwindle proportionately.
We have already come to a point in society where many women must settle for men who are less educated than them. This is partly a reflection of the pressures that are put on women in society and the failure of many men to sustain as much ambition as their female peers.
The government is also inadvertently encouraging men to take up public service jobs, where higher education isn’t a prerequisite and wages are immediately paid, which attracts high school dropouts and exacerbates the situation.
Although the UAE is a modern and progressive nation, there are still certain expectations of national women that are widely held by society. Families not only hope but expect their daughters – however educated and independent – to get married. It is seen as the natural step forward in a young woman’s life.
I have even heard of women telling their daughters to lower their expectations since there simply aren’t enough “good men” to go around, not to mention the possibility of nationals who feel insecure about marrying more successful and better educated women.
We must first accept that adult women may choose out of their own conviction to marry younger or older men. UAE society should also accept the possibility that a substantial number of Emirati women will not end up being married – for whatever reason. That said, could anything be done to tackle this matter?
The country must intensify efforts to encourage men to first enrol in universities and then see them through to their degrees.
Secondly, consideration should be given to allowing women who marry non-Emiratis to pass on their citizenships with all that it entails to their children from non-Emiratis. The practice of using technicalities, such as giving their children passports but not citizenships or family books, should be reviewed. The Government should also consider allowing Emirati women married to non-nationals to apply for government grants and health cards for their families.
As a result of these skewed ratios, along with the seemingly unlimited number of expats coming to the country, the demographic make-up of the UAE’s society will be significantly altered within two decades’ time.
This happens to be a matter of national security, as the UAE has crossed a point of no return with regards to its millions of expatriates making a life and servicing this giant economic wheel that we all call home. And while expat numbers continue to increase, the ratio of Emirati nationals will decrease proportionately as a result of the gender-educational imbalance.
It is a peculiar situation to be in where educated women end up with the short end of the stick. Academic ambition ought to be rewarded and not punished. But being labelled spinsters, denied the same rights as their less-educated male counterparts, and expected to marry within a shrinking pool of educated men seems to be their lot.
It is an unfair situation that should concern Emirati men and women alike, and without urgent government attention, the social impact could one day become irreversible.
*This article first appeared in The National on Sunday 2nd May 2010