Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa - United Arab Emirates

  • Author: Shatha K. Al-Muttawa
  • Document source:
  • Date:
    14 October 2005

Population: 3,900,000
GDP Per Capita (PPP): $22,420
Economy: Capitalist-statist
Ranking on UN HDI: 49 out of 177
Polity: Federation of traditional monarchies
Literacy: Male 75.6% / Female 80.7%
Percent Women Economically Active: 32%
Date of Women's Suffrage: No women's suffrage
Women's Fertility Rate: 3.0
Percent Urban/Rural: Urban 78% / Rural 22%


Nondiscrimination and Access to Justice: 1.7
Autonomy, Security, and Freedom of the Person: 2.1
Economic Rights and Equal Opportunity: 2.8
Political Rights and Civic Voice: 1.2
Social and Cultural Rights: 2.3

(Scale of 1 to 5: 1 represents the lowest and 5 the highest level of freedom women have to exercise their rights)


The United Arab Emirates (UAE), previously known as the Trucial States, established its independence in 1971 after the British withdrew from the Persian Gulf. The UAE is a federation of seven traditional monarchies: Abu Dhabi, the capital; Dubai, the cosmopolitan financial and commercial center; Sharjah; Fujairah; Umm al-Qaiwain; Ras al-Khaimah; and Ajman. Every five years, the rulers of the seven emirates, who constitute the Federal Supreme Council, the top legislative and executive body, choose one of their own to serve as federal president. However, the position of president was held successively by the ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahayan, from the country's independence until his death in November 2004. His son Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan was chosen to succeed his father as president.

The UAE has a closed political system in which elections have never been held. The president appoints the prime minister and cabinet, who manage the country's daily affairs. Delegates of a 40-member council, the Federal National Council (FNC), are appointed every two years by the leaders of the seven emirates; however, the council serves only as an advisory body.

The UAE has the region's most diversified economy and a high per capita GDP of $22,420. In addition to large oil reserves, the UAE possesses a leading free trade zone in Dubai, a large manufacturing center in Sharjah, a sophisticated financial-services and banking sector, and a built-up tourism sector. Of the 3,900,000 residents, less than 20 percent are citizens, with foreign workers from South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Europe comprising the remaining population. Non-nationals are predominantly men, and in 2002, only 34.2 percent of the total population of the UAE was women. The vast majority of UAE's foreign workers and citizens practice Islam, the state religion, with the Sunni sect predominating; there are also small groups of practicing Hindus and Christians.

Political parties are prohibited in the UAE, and rights of assembly and association are limited. All nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) must register with the ministry of labor and social affairs and are subject to government closure. There are no trade unions, and foreign nationals are generally not offered labor protections. In 2002, the Dubai police created a human rights department to monitor prison conditions, rehabilitate prisoners, and conduct programs for crime victims. However, no independent human rights groups operate in the UAE.

Women's equality is not clearly established in the UAE constitution. In practice, women's social, economic, and legal rights are not consistently observed because of traditional biases against women and the incomplete and selective implementation of the law. Women's lives in the UAE and the laws that govern them differ dramatically depending on the conditions of their citizenship and employment status.

A woman's rights and legal status are often determined by her standing in UAE society as one of the following: a UAE citizen, a foreign professional woman temporarily residing on an employment contract, a foreign woman employed in the informal sector such as domestic work, or the wife of a temporary foreign worker. This situation creates a gap between women's experiences in the UAE, the implementation of their legal protections, and their abilities to exercise their rights. Furthermore, many women remain uninformed of the rights and legal protections available to them.

There are no known independent women's human rights organizations working on gender equality issues in the UAE. The officially recognized organization promoting women's issues is a semi-government body, the General Women's Union, which was founded in 1975 by the late president's wife, Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak. It serves as an umbrella organization that monitors the work of all other women's groups, most of which work as charity groups or women's business clubs.

Discussion of women's issues in the UAE is difficult because the justifications for restrictions on women's rights are rooted in traditional interpretations of Islam, the criticism of which is a punishable offense. These circumstances contribute to a severe lack of data on women's rights issues in the UAE – the information available being contradictory or inaccurate – and government censorship of information and discussion exacerbates the problem.


The constitution of the UAE, adopted in 1971 and made permanent in 1996 by the leaders of the seven emirates, declares Shari'a as a principal source of law. Additional influences on the UAE legal system are the common law and Egyptian legal traditions, in addition to UAE customs and traditions.

The UAE constitution declares all persons equal before the law. Article 25 states, "All persons shall be equal before the law. No discrimination shall be practiced between citizens of the Union by reason of race, nationality, religious belief or social position." However, the constitution does not ensure women's equality, in that it fails to stipulate the prohibition of discrimination based on gender.

Article 15 of the constitution declares, "The family is the basis of society. It is founded on morality, religion, ethics and patriotism. The law shall guarantee its existence, safeguard and protect it from corruption." In addition to the importance given to the family in the constitution, the ministry of Islamic affairs and Awqaf classifies women's roles in society as wives and mothers within its definitions of religion, ethics, and morality. These two factors often serve as the basis for legal discrimination against women in the UAE. As a result, laws and policies tend to promote traditional roles for women rather than uphold their independence and equality with men.

Implementation of both legislation and the country's protections against gender discrimination is often dependent upon a woman's status in UAE society. For example, laws that apply for professional foreign women, such as sexual harassment laws, do not apply for domestic workers, and laws that apply to female citizens, such as the ban on marriage to men of other nationalities, do not apply to foreign women. Furthermore, some UAE laws may be contradicted or limited by other laws. The law that makes education mandatory at the elementary level may be superseded by the law that allows a father to determine whether or not his daughter will be educated.

An additional challenge to the legal protection of women's rights in the UAE is that laws that protect women's equality tend only to apply and be enforced in the public sphere – outside the home – a setting that in practice is off-limits to most UAE women. Women's rights therefore are not legally protected in the home; fathers and husbands have the legal authority to prevent their daughters and wives from participating in professional and social life.

Women are directly discriminated against as a result of their gender in some UAE legislation, particularly in laws governing citizenship. Foreign women who marry male UAE citizens are granted citizenship; however, female citizens are not permitted, under any circumstances, to transfer their nationality to their foreign-born husbands. A UAE woman national, in fact, is forbidden by law to marry a foreign man, and a 1996 law requires her to give up her citizenship if she marries a non-Gulf citizen. Exceptions may be made if a woman presents her case to the presidential council in Abu Dhabi and receives special permission, but she will still not be able to transfer her citizenship on to her foreign husband. The government established a marriage fund in 1992 to encourage male citizens to marry female citizens but has taken no steps to remove the ban on the right of women citizens to marry noncitizens.

Since 1983, male citizens have been able to sponsor their expatriate wives for work visas in accordance with Cabinet Order No. 149/2. It was only recently that the government issued decree No. 3/455 of 2004, allowing 8,000 female citizens to sponsor their foreign husbands for three-year work visas. This decree applies only to women who gained permission from the president to marry noncitizens. Up to this point, UAE national women married to expatriate men with presidential permission had to request social aid from the government because their husbands were not allowed to work.

Female non-nationals also face discrimination in the laws governing citizenship; in practice, the implementation of these laws is often dependent upon the women's class and income levels. Foreign women working in the UAE cannot sponsor their children to live in the country although expatriate men can sponsor their families. Exceptions are made for female doctors, teachers, and nurses who meet a certain salary requirement, although women working in these professions generally do not meet the minimum requirement. Recently, the Nationalities and Residence Department introduced measures that will allow widows and divorced women who were married to foreigners to pass their nationality on to their underage children.

The UAE has a dual system of Shari'a courts that handle criminal and family matters in addition to secular courts for matters of civil law. Non-Muslims are tried for criminal offenses in Shari'a courts; however, non-Muslims most often receive civil penalties at the discretion of the judge instead of Shari'a penalties.

A woman is considered an adult and a full person before the courts at the age of 18 and can seek legal counsel and representation. Article 41 of the constitution states that "every person shall have the right to submit complaints to the competent authorities, including the judicial authorities, concerning the abuse or infringement of the rights and freedoms stipulated in this chapter." In practice, however, women often have extremely limited access to justice due to traditional social norms that discourage women from entering police stations or courts of law – predominantly male spaces. The police often try to settle disputes involving women so that women do not have to go to court. In the cases of women accused of assault, police officers allow women to pay a penalty rather than go to jail. It is considered a dishonor to the family in the UAE for a woman to go to prison.

The UAE signed on to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 2004, making reservations to Articles 2(f), 9, 15(2), 16 and 29(1), predominantly on the grounds that they conflict with the precepts of Shari'a regarding rights of inheritance, nationality, maintenance and divorce, legal capacity, testimony, and the right to conclude contracts.


  1. The government should amend the constitution to prohibit gender discrimination, particularly discriminatory provisions in its nationality law.
  2. The government should ensure that women have free and safe access to the police and the courts without fear of violence at the hands of family members.
  3. The government should remove all reservations to CEDAW and take steps to implement it locally by bringing national laws into conformity with CEDAW.


Article 32 of the UAE constitution declares, "the freedom to hold religious ceremonies in accordance with established custom shall be safeguarded, provided such ceremonies are consistent with public order and with public morals." Islam is the official religion, and virtually all UAE citizens are Muslim; approximately 85 percent are Sunni and 15 percent are Shi'a. While no official statistics are available, it is estimated that the foreign population residing in the UAE is 55 percent Muslim, 25 percent Hindu, 10 percent Christian, and 5 percent Buddhist, as well as small populations of other religions. Non-Muslim groups are permitted to practice their religions and can establish houses of worship by requesting a land grant from the government and receiving permission from the local ruler to build a compound. Religious groups that do not have their own buildings must share the facilities of other religious organizations or worship in private homes.

Some restrictions on the practice of religion do exist, however. The government controls and monitors the content of sermons in nearly all Sunni mosques. The ministry of Islamic affairs and Awqaf trains and supervises the imams, inspects the mosques, bans any materials that "defame" Islam or "raise doubts" about the religion, works to spread Islamic values and culture in UAE society, and gives opinions on legal cases.

Women are free to teach the Quran to other women and form study groups to discuss religion. However, these groups tend predominantly to stress conservative and patriarchal Islamic views on women's roles and reinforce traditional ideas of women's subordinate position in society.

While the law provides for freedom of movement, by custom, a man may prevent his wife, minor children, and adult unmarried daughters from leaving the country by withholding their passports or by contacting the immigration authorities. Employers of foreign domestic workers also commonly hold the passports of their employees, making it difficult for them to terminate their contracts, travel, or return to their countries if dissatisfied with the conditions of their work. This practice was banned by the ministry of interior in July of 2003; however, many companies and employers continue to withhold the passports of employees as leverage. Recent public discussions and media attention on this issue have encouraged the government to increase efforts to enforce the prohibition of this practice.

The personal status code, which is in accordance with the UAE's interpretation of Sunni Shari'a laws, governs the family matters of Muslims and is applied in local Shari'a courts. However, Shi'a Muslims in Dubai have the option of pursuing Shi'a family law cases through a special Shi'a council rather than the Shari'a courts.

The personal status code of the UAE prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men. Muslim men, on the other hand, are free to marry outside the religion. A woman may go to a court of law as early as at age 15, the legal age for marriage, to defend her right to marry a Muslim citizen of her choice if her male guardian forbids her marriage. In practice, however, parents arrange most local marriages. Women are permitted to ask for specific rights to be stipulated in the marriage contract, such as the right to work and study after marriage. UAE family law continues to permit men to have more than one wife at a time; however, marriage law requires that the man obtain permission from his first wife to marry a second wife.

A Muslim man in the UAE is allowed to divorce his spouse verbally, but a woman cannot do the same. A woman may be granted a divorce in a court of law only if the judge agrees that her husband has either inflicted harm on her physically, emotionally, or otherwise; abandoned her for three or more months; or not provided for her or her children. Local divorced women are not looked upon favorably in society, and women generally prefer not to get a divorce despite their legal right to one.

In cases of divorce, custody is usually given to the mother of female children until they reach the age of maturity or marry, and of male children until they reach the age of 13. However, should the mother remarry, she forfeits her rights to custody of the children from her previous marriage. In 2003, a number of UAE national women advocates and members of the UAE Women's Federation submitted a memorandum to the ministry of Islamic affairs and Awqaf expressing reservations over articles of the Personal Status Draft Law. Articles criticized as eroding women's rights involved laws governing engagement, the marriage contract, dowry, divorce, trusteeship, pregnancy, and maintenance, among others.

Despite Article 33 of Federal Law No. 13, 1996, which forbids the trafficking of persons, women are regularly trafficked into the UAE for the purpose of labor and sexual exploitation. Women victims of trafficking primarily originate from South and East Asia and the former Soviet Union, with many being sold to illegal brothels in the UAE. In response the government has taken some actions such as limiting the number of visas granted to single women and banning all visas to women under 30 from the former Soviet republics. The police also organize patrols and raids in areas where they suspect illegal activities to be taking place. However, while the Dubai police created an anti-trafficking in persons department in 2003, many victims of trafficking are still not recognized as such and may be punished for immigration violations or prostitution, which carries a three-year prison sentence.

Torture is illegal and prohibited in Article 26 of the constitution, yet UAE Shari'a courts impose flogging sentences for persons found guilty of drug use, adultery, and prostitution in all emirates except Dubai. The UAE has not ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Torture and Other Cruel and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In 2003, the federal court ordered the flogging and deportation of a 15-year-old Chinese girl who was sentenced to 90 lashes for adultery – a ruling upheld twice by the federal court despite the girl's young age, but later overturned by the Federal Supreme Court. According to an Amnesty International report, 18 flogging sentences were passed in the year 2001, all allegedly for adultery.

Rape, abuse, and harassment are considered criminal offenses under UAE law. Nevertheless, many women are subject to domestic abuse, often at the hands of male family members. According to Shari'a law as interpreted in the UAE, a man may legally beat his wife – so long as he does not seriously injure her – in order to "discipline" her. This type of abuse is common, but women are often reluctant to seek outside help. In 2003, for the first time, a comparison of yearly statistics on violence in divorce cases among UAE nationals was possible, as 2002 was the first year in which details were accurately recorded. Figures released by the Dubai department of justice at the end of 2003 revealed that the number of divorces caused by domestic violence had leapt. Violence is now known to be a factor in more than one-fifth of divorces. There are no shelters for victims of domestic violence in the UAE. However, major hospitals have police officers on staff to register complaints from women who come for treatment.

Men who harass women on the street or in public places such as shopping malls are subject to punishment by law. Pictures of men caught harassing women appear weekly in Dubai-based newspapers, a source of shame for the men's families. However, these legal and social punitive measures have not completely eradicated the problem of the harassment of women in public spaces.

Victims of rape in the UAE are often reluctant to admit or report the crime. As a result, the offending men go unpunished. It is believed that cases involving the rape of women by immediate family members are on the rise and are also not reported to the police. Part of women's fear of reporting the crime of rape stems from the fact that women who report rape may be subject to punishment for adultery, which ranges from death by stoning in some emirates to imprisonment and deportation in others. A French businesswoman who reported to the police that she was gang raped in Dubai in 2002 was taken to court and faced a maximum sentence of 18 months in prison for having "adulterous sexual relations." She was bailed out of jail by the French consulate while the perpetrators were not punished at all.

The UAE issues an estimated 300 visas per day for domestic workers – 116,083 such visas were issued in 1999 alone – which has resulted in the number of domestic workers in the UAE being equal to the indigenous population. As a result of the limitations placed on UAE national women by their male family members not to interact with unrelated men, families are increasingly hiring female drivers and cooks, as well as housekeepers. UAE households host an average of three domestic workers per home. Most domestic workers come from South and Southeast Asian countries, with sizable numbers from India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Indonesia, as well as increasing numbers from Ethiopia. The salaries of domestic workers are dependent on the worker's national origin – women from the Philippines typically receive higher salaries than women from India for the same job.

UAE labor laws do not apply to domestic workers, and these women have few rights protections. Employers sponsor their visas, and the workers are legally placed under the control of their employers. Domestic workers often have very limited freedom of movement and are isolated from society; many are not allowed to leave the house or use the phone. They may be monitored closely, and their dress and religious activities controlled. Many domestic workers are subject to racism and ill-treatment from household members and may labor under slave-like conditions. The average domestic employee works 15 hours a day, without any days off.

About half of the female domestic workers interviewed for the International Labour Organization's Gender Promotion Programme reported being abused verbally, physically, and/or sexually. The sources of abuse range from employers to family members of the employer to visitors. Many domestic workers are afraid to report abuse, and many simply live with it. Housemaids who run away from their employers and are caught by the police or who approach the police in order to report abusive employers and end their contracts may be imprisoned by the immigration authorities.

A victim care program was launched in March 2003 by the Dubai police's human rights department to provide psychological, emotional, and legal assistance to victims of sexual crimes and children who are victims of crimes. Women who suffer from abuse can call the social services division of the human rights department at four different numbers or the social services section of police stations. The women's Da'waa administration is said to have a telephone hotline for women and children with direct access to police stations in all emirates; however, there is no readily available information on this hotline, so women and children do not know about it and cannot access it. The Al Maktoum charity organization also provides financial assistance for battered women who have no income or shelter.


  1. The government should amend its laws and procedures on rape to ensure that women victims of rape are not discriminated against and charged with adultery.
  2. The government should provide services to female victims of violence and rape, including counseling and legal representation; initiate public education campaigns on all forms of violence against women; and provide gender-sensitive training to police and court officials so they can provide support and due process to female victims of violence.
  3. The government should revise the marriage laws to ensure that women are protected from domestic violence and that all forms of domestic violence are considered criminal offenses.


A woman may independently own land and property when she turns 18, and many women exercise this right. A married woman is the sole owner of her property, and her husband has no right to it while they are married or if they divorce. An unmarried woman's property, on the other hand, is not legally protected from her father or brother. Government policies do not provide equal housing benefits for men and women. Male UAE nationals are entitled to receive either pieces of land and 500,000 Dirhams (approximately $136,000) from the government or previously built houses. Women nationals do not have this same privilege, as it is presumed that they will be provided housing by their husband.

For Muslims in the UAE, inheritance law is in accordance with the country's interpretation of Shari'a, which prescribes an unequal distribution of assets for men and women. For followers of other faiths, inheritance is determined by the religion of the deceased.

Women who are citizens of the UAE do not face restrictions on licensing businesses in their names, and they are legally allowed to own businesses and serve as business heads. Official reports show that women are now running businesses in trade and maintenance, financial brokerage, real estate and rental, manufacturing industries, restaurants and hotels, and construction. Nevertheless, as it is not considered respectable for women to interact with male non-relatives, many women are prevented by their fathers, brothers, or husbands from entering into such business-related contracts and activities.

Education is free for all citizens from primary schooling through the university level. Article 17 of the constitution makes schooling mandatory for girls and boys through the sixth grade, at which time students are usually 10 or 11 years old. Nevertheless, compulsory education is not enforced, and a woman whose father or brother does not allow her to go to school or to work has no legal protection. The enrollment of girls in primary education (86 percent) for the year 2000, however, was equal to that of boys (87 percent).

The school system in the UAE is gender-segregated at all levels. Textbooks for all educational subjects and levels are issued by the government, and academic freedom is restricted. Islamic education is compulsory for all Muslims and instructs girls to obey their fathers and husbands and to accept their primary roles as mothers and wives. Schools that teach subjects that contravene Islam or question the government's ethics and beliefs or local culture are subject to closure.

Women have made great gains in education, particularly at the university level. The literacy rate of women in the UAE was 80.7 percent in 2003, higher than the male literacy rate of 75.6 percent. Women currently make up 75 percent of the student body at the National University in Al-Ain. This gender discrepancy, however, may be due in part to the limited fields of study offered for both men and women in local universities. Many local men choose to study abroad, while most UAE women are not allowed by their families to leave the country alone.

Article 34 of the constitution guarantees both men and women the right to choose a profession: "Every citizen shall be free to choose his occupation, trade or profession within the limits of the law, due consideration being given to any regulations prescribed for any such professions and trades." Nevertheless, in practice, a woman's right to choose her career is often limited.

Family restrictions are a major factor in women's unemployment, as the opinions of family members – especially males – are highly influential in a woman's educational and vocational decisions. Women nationals are generally not allowed by their families to work in firms or organizations that are not gender-segregated, which limits their options considerably. For example, many women are prevented from studying law because its practice involves appearing in court and working with men. A profession like teaching, on the other hand, is more acceptable because all schools are gender-segregated and prevent contact between the sexes. The public sector in general is gender-segregated. Some government ministries do not employ married women without their husband's written consent.

Despite the challenges women may face in following the profession of their choice, many women have begun to work in diverse fields that were previously male dominated. In 2003, for the first time, the Abu Dhabi police trained 32 women to work with the special security forces. In 2000, the Dubai Transport Corporation hired women taxi drivers to transport women and children, a first in the Gulf. Women graduates in the UAE can now be found working in engineering, science, media, computer technology, law, commerce, and the oil industry. In 2002, women nationals of the UAE reportedly filled 27.1 percent of senior decision-making administrative posts in the public sector, and in 2003 women held an estimated 40 percent of all public sector posts.

Women nationals make up the largest unemployed group in the UAE; 1 out of 10 women nationals are unemployed, while only 1 out of 100 expatriate women cannot find work, according to a 1995 census. The participation of women in the labor force was at 14.8 percent in 2000 and dropped to 14 percent in 2003. To address this problem, the government has started to grant women licenses to start their own businesses. The Dubai and Abu Dhabi chambers of commerce and industry established women's business councils in 2002 to encourage women nationals to participate in the UAE economy. At the First Economic Business Women's Forum, sponsored by the General Women's Union, held in October of 2003 for Arab businesswomen, the participants discussed ways to enhance the role of Arab businesswomen.

The UAE ratified the International Labour Organization Convention Number 100 concerning Equal Remuneration for Men and Women Workers for Work of Equal Value, but males continue to receive higher wages than females in some jobs, particularly in the informal sector. Some women also face discrimination in job promotions. Employers, both government and private, are legally allowed to specify in job announcements and advertisements the gender of the employee they are seeking to hire. Sexual harassment in the workplace, however, is prohibited in the personal status code, and women can report incidents at any police station.

There is an unequal distribution of work-related benefits in the UAE, especially regarding housing. This is true for jobs in both the public and private sectors. For example, if both spouses are employed by the government, both housing allowances will be paid to the husband because he is obliged under law to provide for his wife's housing. However, housing allowances are paid directly to single women and to married women who work for the government whose husbands are employed in the private sector.

The ministry of labor issued a law that prohibits employers from firing or threatening to fire a female employee on the basis of pregnancy, delivery, or parenting. Maternity leave in the public sector is two to six months. While on maternity leave, a woman is entitled during the first two months to full pay, the third and fourth months to half salary, and the last two months to no pay. A woman may take one paid hour break from work per day for 18 months to nurse her baby.

According to Article 30 of the Labor Law, a foreign woman worker is entitled to 45 days of paid leave after completing a year of work with an employer, 45 days of half pay if she worked for less than a year, and 100 days of absence without pay in the case of illness related to child bearing.

The UAE does not allow labor unions, and foreign workers, who comprise 98 percent of the work force in the private sector, are generally not offered any labor protections. Even though domestic workers are considered contract workers, the majority of domestic workers do not have contracts with recruiting agencies or employers to outline their rights and responsibilities. Instead, many have contracts from their embassies, which are not binding on the employer or any UAE official. As an employee's residence or visa is often reliant upon the conditions of employment and sponsorship, termination of employment can lead to deportation. This situation serves to complicate the efforts of employees wanting to file labor dispute complaints or protest poor working conditions. The United Arab Emirates has not ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.


  1. The government should revise the labor laws to remove articles that result in gender-based discrimination and should enact policies to promote equal rights for women workers and protections for migrant women workers.
  2. The government should allow all foreign women working in the UAE to sponsor their families to live in the UAE and provide services to all migrant women regardless of their national origin.
  3. The government should enact complaint mechanisms for women who are prohibited from working by their family members and ensure that women have access to justice in these cases.


UAE citizens have few political rights and cannot change their government democratically. The UAE has never held an election; neither men nor women have the right of suffrage. The 40 members of the Federal National Council (FNC) are appointed every two years by the rulers of the seven emirates; however, this body serves only as an advisory body. Political parties are not allowed in the UAE, and citizens have little influence on policies and decision-making. Citizens voice their concerns directly to their leaders through consultative mechanisms such as the open majlis (meetings).

The rights of citizens to organize gatherings or demonstrate for any cause are extremely limited. All public meetings require government permits. All nongovernmental organizations must register with the ministry of labor and social affairs. In 2003, approximately 100 domestic NGOs were registered with the government.

Freedom of speech is guaranteed in the constitution; however, the government restricts this right in practice. The Law of Printing and Publishing No. 15 of 1980 applies to all media, prohibiting "defamatory material and negative material about presidents, friendly countries, religious issues and pornography." Journalists practice self-censorship in order to avoid government punishment, which can include harassment and imprisonment.

Although women are not legally prohibited from holding senior-level positions in government, they are vastly underrepresented in public life and decision-making roles. Sheikha Fatima, wife of the former president, announced in 1998 that women observers would be appointed to the Federal National Council to train for eventual appointment to the body itself. However, no such appointments were announced by the end of 2003. In 2002, in her capacity as the head of the National Council on Women, she announced: "The Women's Federation will nominate and submit to the President the names of two women to be appointed as members of the Federal National Council for the emirate of Abu Dhabi." However, at the end of 2003, the 40 members of the FNC remained all male.

Women have made inroads, however, in some levels of the government in recent years. The ruler of Sharjah, Sheikh Sultan Bin Muhammad Al Qassemi, appointed five women to his consultative council in 2002. In 2003, women served as undersecretary in the ministry of labor and social affairs and as assistant undersecretary for planning and evaluation in the ministry of education. Women were accepted for the first time to the Judicial Academy in Abu Dhabi in 2004, and one was selected for an executive position in the ministry of justice.

Women's representation in UAE media continues to be limited, and there are few women journalists. UAE television stations rarely address women's issues or gender-based violence problems such as rape or incest. In 2002, the General Women's Union organized the "Arab Women and Media Forum," which drew delegations from various Arab countries. Papers presented at the gathering demonstrated that the most prominent challenge for Arab women in the media is society, which still views working women negatively. The forum called for the portrayal of stronger Arab and Islamic values in the media and issued a code of ethics. Sheikha Fatima continues to encourage the media to portray women's issues from an Arabic and Islamic perspective.

Women's freedom to gain access to and use information to empower themselves is often limited. Most women do not have access to information on developments in UAE society and around the world and are therefore unaware of their rights, especially in comparison to women in other countries. UAE women are also often uninformed about movements within the country to improve women's status, making sustaining such a movement a challenge. Independent legal aid groups and legal literacy NGOs are rare, and women lawyers are just beginning to form associations. Currently, there are no independent women's human rights NGOs working in the UAE. It is also extremely difficult for international human rights NGOs to freely operate in the country, particularly migrant women's rights groups.

Of the approximately 460,000 Internet users in the UAE, only 6 percent are women. As a result, women remain largely unaware of government web portals that detail services available to them. The UAE government censors some Internet sites, but Dubai Media City and Dubai Internet City, which are free trade zones for information and technology companies, are exempt, with the warning that this freedom should not be abused. Women, mostly migrant workers from East Asia, constitute 65 percent of Dubai Internet City workers.


  1. The government should ensure the right of assembly to all citizens and noncitizens and allow NGOs to advocate for the rights of all women.
  2. The government should allow independent political parties to operate and should grant the right to vote to all men and women.
  3. The government should create a legislative body that represents the people and is open to men and women.
  4. The government should allow freedom of the press at all levels and encourage debate on women's rights issues in order to improve women's image in the media.


Despite the cosmopolitan nature of the UAE, the country is segregated not only along gender lines but also by ethnicity. Schools, hospitals, and mosques are segregated by gender, while banks and post offices have separate lines for women. Likewise, immigrants to the UAE tend to self-segregate, forming separate communities characterized by the use of native languages and practice of foreign cultures, as well as separate institutions like schools and hospitals. Thus, the potential benefits of introducing into society new views and cultural norms regarding women remain largely unrealized.

The UAE has some of the best medical care facilities in the world, but the extent to which women can make independent decisions on their health and reproductive rights is sometimes restricted. All public health clinics are free for citizens and have separate sections for women. However, free and reduced-cost health services are not extended to the 80 percent of the population who are foreign.

Efforts toward promoting women's maternal health have greatly decreased the infant mortality rate and helped to increase the life expectancy of women over the last decade. A UNICEF survey (1995-2003) of women aged 15 to 49, found that 97 percent of pregnant women received antenatal care, and 96 percent of births were attended by skilled health personnel. Between 1980 and 1985, the total fertility rate was 5.23 children per childbearing woman. This rate has now dropped to 3.0 children per mother. However, the UNICEF survey revealed that only 28 percent of women aged 15 to 49 used contraception.

According to the UN-funded Pan Arab Project for Family Health (PAPFAM), the majority of women in the UAE who wish to use birth control pills obtain them through smugglers because they are not stocked in most pharmacies. The alternative is to special-order birth control pills at a pharmacy; however, no educational materials are available about this type of birth control. In 2000, a 24-hour phone and e-mail hotline was launched by Johnson and Johnson Gynecare to answer women's medical questions in Arabic and in English. This service is not advertised, but it continues to operate.

Abortion is illegal under Article 64 of the penal code and Law No. 7 of 1975, unless it is required to save the life of the woman. It is not permitted on the grounds of rape or incest, fetal impairment, economic or social reasons, or preserving the physical or mental health of the woman. No legal abortions were reported in 2002 or 2003. However, in 2002, two female doctors were imprisoned for performing illegal abortions.

A study in the UAE shows that 60 percent of women over the age of 50 may develop breast cancer. The number of deaths caused by breast cancer has been rising dramatically, with doctors saying that diagnostic techniques have not improved much and that, in any case, many women are too shy or uneducated to seek medical care. This lack of awareness of the benefits of regular medical checkups results in many diagnoses being made 6 to 10 years after the onset of breast cancer.

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is still discreetly practiced in the UAE, performed chiefly by female doctors on young girls in hospitals and dispensaries. One survey conducted in the country in the mid-1990s found that 30.8 percent of girls between the ages of 1 and 5 had been circumcised.

Unmarried male and female nationals traditionally live with their families regardless of their age. Unmarried couples may not live together legally, but this law is not generally enforced for foreigners. However, in all emirates except Dubai, foreign women who have children out of wedlock may be imprisoned and deported if they are found living with a man to whom they are not married. In Dubai, unmarried pregnant noncitizens are given the option of marrying the father or leaving the country before they are arrested for fornication.

Women are not required by law to cover themselves, but women nationals often wear a sheila – a traditional black scarf that covers some, or all, of a woman's hair – and an abaya – an article of clothing that covers the entire body from the shoulders to the ankles. Those inclined to dress differently often do not for fear of verbal and physical abuse from male family members or restrictions that might be imposed on their freedom to leave the home. Domestic workers are often given clothes their employers find suitable and are usually ordered to wear them.

There are no restrictions on the dress of foreign women, who are free to wear their national or ethnic clothing. Noncitizen women in the UAE are free to take an active role in the cultural events of their communities. A large number of social and community groups run by noncitizen women in the UAE support programs, dance, music, and food native to their culture. Noncitizen women from wealthy families also manage and produce several magazines and media groups, particularly in Dubai.


  1. The ministry of health should lead educational programs and awareness campaigns for all women, citizens and noncitizens, on women's health, reproductive health, and birth control.
  2. The government should enact laws against female genital mutilation and initiate educational campaigns to inform doctors and the public about the dangers of this practice.
  3. The government should initiate public education programs that address women's gender-specific health needs such as screenings for breast cancer.

AUTHOR: Shatha K. Al-Muttawa was born in Kuwait and is a local citizen of the United Arab Emirates. She received her B.A. from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and is currently pursuing her graduate work at the University of Chicago. She is interested in the intellectual history of the Arab world and its interaction with other cultures and civilizations.


[Refworld note: source files did not contain inline references to these notes; they have been included to enable further reading and research.]

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2. Table 1, "Human Development Index," in Human Development Report 2004: Cultural Liberty in Today's Diverse World (New York: United Nations Development Programme [UNDP], 2004), 139, http://hdr.undp.org/reports/global/2004/.

3. "UAE Politics" (United Arab Emirates Government Web site).

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5. "Judiciary: United Arab Emirates" (Beirut: UNDP, Programme on Governance in the Arab Region [POGAR]), www.pogar.org/countries/judiciary.asp?cid=21.

6. M. Cherif Bassiouni and Martha E. Dyba, "United Arab Emirates," in Constitutions of the Countries of the World (New York: Oceana Publications, 1982).

7. Author's translation.

8. Freedom House staff and author's conversations with women lawyers in UAE in the summer of 2004.

9. "Expats can work under local wife's sponsorship," UAE Interact: The Official Website for the Ministry of Information and Culture in the UAE, 21 July 2004, http://www.uaeinteract.com/news/default.asp?ID=155.

10. Nada S. Mussallam, "Local women can now sponsor expat husbands," Khaleej Times, 14 July 2004,

11. "Developments in the Situation of Arab Women" (ESCWA, Centre for Women, accessed 30 July 2004), www.escwa.org.lb/divisions/ecw/more/developments.html.

12. United Arab Emirates International Religious Freedom Report 2003 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, 2004), http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2003/24464.htm.

13. Freedom House staff and author's conversations with women lawyers in UAE in the summer of 2004.

14. Religious Freedom Report (U.S. Dept. of State), http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2003/24464.htm.

15. Ibid.

16. "Cabinet Decision No. 4, 1974, On Arrangement of Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs and Awqaf" (UAE Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Awqaf), http://www.uae.gov.ae/moia/English/e_rules.htm.

17. Country Reports (U.S. Dept. of State), http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2003/27940.htm.

18. Religious Freedom Report (U.S. Dept. of State), http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2003/24464.htm.

19. "United Arab Emirates: Women in Public Life" (POGAR), www.pogar.org/countries/uae/gender.html.

20. Country Reports (U.S. Dept. of State).

21. "Call to Amend Draft Personal Status Law," Gulf News, 16 February 2003, http://www.amanjordan.org/english/daily_news/wmprint.php?ArtID=973.

22. Rima Sabban, Migrant Women in the United Arab Emirates: The Case of Female Domestic Workers (Geneva: International Labour Organization, Gender Promotion Programme, 2001), 37.

23. "Trafficking in Persons Report" (U.S. Dept. of State, 14 June 2004), http://www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/2004/33195.htm.

24. Alexander Zelichenko, "Kyrgyz Sex Trade Flourishes" (London: Institute for War and Peace Reporting) IWPROnline, 24 March 2000, http://www.iwpr.net/index.pl?archive/rca/rca_200003_00_09_eng.txt.

25. Leila Saralaeva, "Gulf States to Curb Sex Trafficking," IWPR Online, 16 June 2004, http://www.iwpr.net/index.pl?archive/rca/rca_200406_293_2_eng.txt.

26. Geoffrey York, "Ads for foreign jobs lure Russians into pimps' net," Globe and Mail, 17 May 2001, http://www.walnet.org/csis/news/world_2001/gandm-010517.html.

27. Country Reports (U.S. Dept. of State).

28. Arab Human Development Report 2002 (New York: United Nations Development Programme, 2002), 114.

29. Shireena Alnowais, "Teenage Girl To Get 90 Lashes, To Be Deported," Gulf News, 17 August 2003, http://www.gulfnews.com/Articles/news.asp?ArticleID=95354.

30. "United Arab Emirates" (London and New York: Amnesty International, Report, 2002), http://web.amnesty.org/web/ar2002.nsf/mde/united+arab+emirates!Open.

31. "Violence Against Women – Innocent Victims of Violence," Gulf News, 16 December 2000, http://www.gulf-news.com/Articles/print.asp?ArticleID=5016.

32. "Husband Has Right to Beat Wife Rules Court of Cassation," Gulf News, 31 March 2002.

33. Bassam Za'za', "Divorce Due to Domestic Violence Up," Gulf News, 7 January 2004, http://www.amanjordan.org/english/daily_news/wmview.php?ArtID=3629.

34. Ibid.

35. "Violence Against Women," Gulf News, 16 December 2000, http://www.gulf-news.com/Articles/print.asp?ArticleID=5016.

36. Country Reports (U.S. Dept. of State).

37. "Violence Against Women," Gulf News, 16 December 2000, http://www.gulf-news.com/Articles/print.asp?ArticleID=5016.

38. "Rape victim faces jail for adultery in Dubai," The Guardian, 4 January 2003, http://www.guardian.co.uk/france/story/0,11882,868508,00.html; "Gang Rape Victim Faces Adultery Charges," Telegraph, 3 January 2003,

39. Rima Sabban, Migrant Women, 9.

40. Ibid.

41. Ibid., 10.

42. Ibid., 11, 24.

43. Ibid., 19.

44. Ibid., 20.

45. Ibid., 22.

46. Ibid., 27.

47. Ibid.

48. Ibid., 44.

49. Country Reports (U.S. Dept. of State).

50. Shalini John, "Wife Abuse: When Fighting Back Is Not An Option," Gulf News, 19 June 2004, http://www.gulfnews.com/Articles/specialreports.asp?ArticleID=124115.

51. Country Reports (U.S. Dept. of State).

52. Shalini John, "Wife Abuse," Gulf News, 19 June 2004, http://www.gulfnews.com/Articles/specialreports.asp?ArticleID=124115.

53. Country Reports (U.S. Dept. of State).

54. UAE Interact, http://www.uaeinteract.com/news/default.asp?cntDisplay=10&ID=35.

55. Country Reports (U.S. Dept. of State).

56. "Role of UAE Women in National Growth Hailed," Khaleej Times Online, 10 March 2003, http://www.amanjordan.org/english/daily_news/wmprint.php?ArtID=1152.

57. "Gender" (POGAR), www.pogar.org/countries/gender.asp?cid=21.

58. Religious Freedom Report 2003 (U.S. Dept. of State).

59. "United Arab Emirates: Women in Public Life" (POGAR), www.pogar.org/countries/uae/gender.html.

60. Country Reports (U.S. Dept. of State).

61. "Political Participation," in Developments in the Situation of Arab Women (October – December 2003) (ESCWA, 2004), http://www.escwa.org.lb/divisions/ecw/main.htm.

62. "Women to Drive Taxis in Dubai," Indian Express Newspapers, 29 May 2000, http://www.expressindia.com/ie/daily/20000529/iin29013.html.

63. "UAE" (ESCWA, Country Profiles, 2003), www.escwa.org.lb/divisions/ecw/profile/uae/main.html.

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66. "Women and Men in the Arab Countries" (ESCWA, 2004), http://www.escwa.org.lb/divisions/ecw/main.htm; Mildred Fernandes, "Empowerment of women vital to achieve development goals," Gulf News, 22 September 2003, http://www.gulf-news.com/Articles/print.asp?ArticleID=98208.

67. Nada S. Mussallam, "Commercial licenses for unemployed local women," Khaleej Times Online, 29 January 2004, http://www.amanjordan.org/english/daily_news/wmview.php?ArtID=3878.

68. "Dubai Business Women," (Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 12 August 2004), "UAE: Sharp rise in number of businesswomen in Dubai," Arab Women Connect, 23 May 2004, 69. Country Reports (U.S. Dept. of State).

70. Rima Sabban, Migrant Women, 36.

71. Country Reports (U.S. Dept. of State).

72. "Legal Issues That You Need to Be Aware of," Data Dubai, http://www.datadubai.com/sexualh_legal.htm.

73. Country Reports (U.S. Dept. of State).

74. Ibid.

75. "Rights and Legislation," in Developments in the Situation of Arab Women (October – December 2003) (ESCWA, 2004), http://www.escwa.org.lb/divisions/ecw/main.htm.

76. Country Reports (U.S. Dept. of State).

77. "Ask the Law," Gulf News, 21 February 2003, http://www.gulf-news.com/Articles/opinionlets.asp?ArticleID=78149.

78. "United Nations Convention on Migrant Workers' Rights enters into Force," UNESCO.org, 79. Country Reports (U.S. Dept. of State).

80. Bassam Za'za', "All laws applicable to Dubai Media City," Gulf News, 27 May 2003,

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