Girl power in the UAE

I was reminded this morning while visiting the car registration centre how lucky women are to enjoy such a VIP status in Dubai.

As DH and I skipped to the front of the queue – thanks to the fact I’m female – we shaved a good 15 minutes off this otherwise tiresome chore. Don’t mind if we do! Result.

Ladies Only

When we first arrived in the UAE, it seemed odd to me that there were certain days when men weren’t allowed in the park. I lost count of the number of times we turned up at one of Dubai’s lush green public parks to find it was Ladies’ Day, giving DH a water-tight excuse to sneak off for a shawarma sandwich and a coffee while I schlepped inside to chase two hyperactive kiddos around. “Have fun,” he’d say with a cheery wave. “Keep an eye on your phone,” I’d tell him, through gritted teeth.

Our first villa was located in a compound where the facilities were segregated. There was a women-only indoor pool and gym, and next door an identical set-up for the men.

Now I take it for granted that women in the UAE are given numerous advantages. There are frustrations that’ll make you spit, but there are also women-only queues (which are much shorter) at government offices, ‘pink’ taxis with lady drivers, and Metro carriages exclusively for women and children (a God-send during rush hour).

In Abu Dhabi, the Al Wahda Mall has introduced a women’s only parking section, which is usually fairly empty and close to the door. And I can’t blog about the UAE being a great place for women without mentioning Ladies’ Nights at the city’s bars and clubs – an expat institution allowing women to enjoy a night out without spending a dime.

It all means I can say, with all honesty, to those overseas who don’t know the UAE: Yes we can drive. No, we don’t have to cover. And yes, we love our ladies’ only perks.


Saudi biking ban overturned

I posted a couple of days ago about the positive aspects of life in the emirates for females.

I didn’t even mention the ladies nights that take place across the city, to which you can shimmy on down in your highest heels and your sparkliest, skimpiest top and get plied with pink bubbly and more, on the house. Their logic being that where there are gals, the men will follow.

All in all, I think we have it amazingly good here, I really do. Certainly, there’s a lot of misinformed opinion around the world (‘Do they cut your hands off in Dubai?’ has appeared in my blog stats twice this week). However, the truth is the UAE is one of the most liberal countries in the Gulf.

But, as I pointed out, Western women living here will also encounter frustrations. For example:

– While setting up a joint bank account you might find your husband is the only person allowed to create your (your!) pin number

– You might have to get your husband to write a letter of consent to give to your GP before she can prescribe the contraceptive pill and all the health checks that go with it

And, believe me, things like this can make you froth at the mouth (what on earth happens, I wonder, if you don’t have a husband or close male family member? That must really throw ‘em for a loop).

A male relative should be present to provide prompt assistance in case of falls or accidents
A male relative should be present to provide prompt assistance in case of falls or accidents

I’ve come to the conclusion, though, that everything’s relative. Across the border in Saudi Arabia, life for women is quite different. The big news this week is that Saudi women can now legally ride a bike in public – sort of.

On Monday, the kingdom’s Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice reportedly overturned a ruling banning national women from cycling or motorbiking. But there are catches: they can only bike for leisure, not transportation, must wear a full-body abaya and be accompanied by a male relative.

I mean, seriously, let a woman pedal off on a bike and you never know where she’ll end up.


Women’s VIP status in the UAE

Bear with me, it’s a long one tonight.

Does anyone else get post-holiday fall-out? That natural anticlimax that occurs when you get back and have no plans in the diary, no food in the fridge and two more weeks of school holidays to fill.

Today, though – despite nursing a chocolate hangover – I woke up with renewed vigour and a masterplan. My offspring were going to be forced outside into the fresh air for some compulsory beach time (you’d be surprised, but when you live so close to the sea, they don’t always want to go to the beach).

We were meeting friends at the Dubai Ladies Club, which is set on the Gulf coast, on a particularly nice stretch of white sand, and offers facilities such as its own private, ladies-only gym, spa, swimming pools and arts centre.

The view. Readers in the frigid UK: Sorry. You can always get on a plane
The view. Readers in the frigid UK: Sorry (truly). You can always get on a plane

Not only are men excluded from the club, but it’s run by women – even the lifeguards are female, and a warning sign is fixed into the ground outside if maintenance men are at work.

This might sound unusual to Westerners, and certainly when I first arrived in the UAE, I found it rather odd that there are certain days when men aren’t allowed in the park. (At the play-park by our first villa, the rule at the time was that men – yes, dads – weren’t permitted to enter during daylight hours from Sunday to Thursday.)

I’ve lost count of the number of times my husband and I have arrived at a park with the children to find it’s the weekly ladies’ day, giving DH a water-tight excuse to sneak off for a shawarma sandwich and a coffee while I schlepp inside to chase two hyperactive kiddos. (This isn’t a problem if your DH is only around on the weekend – mine has an erratic schedule).

A common sight in Dubai (best to check before you set out)
A common sight in Dubai (best to check before you set out)

Our second villa was in a compound where the facilities were segregated. There was a women-only indoor pool and gym, and next door an identical set-up for the men. While I found this a little strange and annoying at first, I must say I quickly got used to it.

Now I take it for granted that all over the UAE, women – who are highly revered as the carriers of life and backbone of society – are given certain advantages. Yes, there are frustrations that’ll make you spit, but there are women-only queues (which are much shorter), ‘pink’ taxis with lady drivers, and Metro carriages exclusively for women and children.

One careful lady owner
A pink taxi: One careful lady owner

I’m not sure if this project ever came to fruition after the economic crash, but back in the heady heights of 2008, we were told the world’s first-ever tower dedicated to businesswomen was to be built in Dubai. Only women would be allowed to own office space. Men could work in the building, but females would be “provided with special facilities such as entrances, elevators and car parks”.

(How hilarious, I thought, imagining the poor men having to walk to work, enter through the backdoor or window, and climb 10 flights of stairs).

man climbing stairs

But I digress – back to the Ladies Club. As we drove up, there was heavy traffic outside, trying to get to the next-door, hugely popular Jumeriah Beach Park, where it was – you’ve guessed it – ladies’ day. Between these two Dubai landmarks, this meant there was a mile-and-a-half of pristine beach dedicated to the fairer sex today.

Entrance to the Ladies Club is pricey if you’re not a member, and unfortunately this doesn’t mean the sand is gold-dust and the chips cut from diamonds. However, it is a really ambient place to relax with the children and the beach is great. (Any pilot’s wives reading this can enter for free using their EPC card).

Today, though, there was a little bit of tension – a convergence of conflicting interests, which I was unwittingly alerted to by this sign by the door:

What a shocker: Beware!

I didn’t think anything of it (it was maintenance day), but for Muslim women who cover and think they’re visiting somewhere where only women will see them in their swimwear, the presence of men, and especially labourers, can be very off-putting.

Several kept their abayas on, only taking their cloaks off when the men weren’t around, and a few complained. “How much longer will these men be here for?” demanded one. “Five minutes? Ten minutes?”

I watched this cultural difference closely out of fascination – and a little later, understood it more fully. Three men in overalls walked past the pool, one carrying a ladder, and I couldn’t help noticing their heads turn. Their eyes taking in the scenery, their gaze resting on the aquamarine pool and sun loungers.

You’d think they’d have been instructed to not stare, but finding themselves working in a ladies’ club after months of living in men-only camps, I should imagine it was impossible not to.

Male-female dos and don’ts

– Men traditionally stand up when women enter a room and this still applies to many workplaces and homes

– It is frowned upon for a man to approach a woman in a public place

– Whereas in the West, a man would greet a woman with a handshake, in Dubai this is a big no

– If a male asks an Arab man about his wife or female members of his family, it can be misunderstood


A male-dominated society?

“Now would be a great time to turn your phone OFF,” I tapped out in a text to DH while on a spending spree at Marks&Spencer the other day.

Being on a digital rein is a royal pain, I tell you. And the text – from the bank telling him the exact amount I’ve splashed out and where – always seems to reach him, even if he’s travelled to the most far-flung corner of the world and I can’t get through myself.

It means he comes back from trips and can joke around with comments like: “Right, let’s see where you’ve been over the past few days. Ah, breakfast at Shakespeare’s. Lunch from Costa, again.

“And what’s this?” he’ll enquire, as he scrolls through the HSBC texts giving away my movements around the city’s malls and supermarkets.

Despite what this sign might suggest, we don't have to walk behind our husbands!
Despite what this sign might suggest, we don’t have to walk behind our husbands!

In all honesty though – and contrary to what people across the globe might think – women in the UAE enjoy a great deal of freedom. The bank texts are for fraud purposes; it just so happens that as the primary card holder, our husbands tend to get the messages.

And, compared to an initiative in neighbouring Saudi Arabia – worryingly called Relax! We’ll track your wife down! – the UAE’s electronic trails are nothing. A text is sent to the male guardian of any female national who leaves Saudi to alert him of her departure (though maybe it is the woman who gets the last laugh, as the text doesn’t say where she’s gone).

But that said, even in the UAE, the most liberal of the Gulf states, there are times when a Western woman will find it a little peculiar (you could switch that word for ‘frustrating’, if you’d like to read between the lines) that she can’t do something she’s always done, like drive, without a ‘letter of no objection’ from her husband.

I’m used to it now – and, in fact, I love the way women are treated here, with female-only queues that really speed up boring, bureaucratic chores – but DH and I still joke about it.

The other night, I was mad about something. I can’t even remember what. And, occasionally, when I’m angry, I’m guilty of pulling the trailing spouse card.

“Well, just book me a flight back to England then,” I frothed at the mouth [horrible wife, I know, but it was late, the kids had been playing up, etc, etc].

For us, it’s not as simple as going to the airline’s website and pressing ‘book’. We use a staff system that I’m pretty clueless about.

And that’s when I realised. The corners of my mouth started twitching upwards. I suppressed a laugh.

Then I caught DH’s eye and he was trying to keep a straight face too. Suddenly the argument seemed silly.

“I can’t even leave the country, can I, without asking you?” I laughed, shaking my head with mock resignation.

[Rolls eyes – and vows to make this the year I get a bank card in my name only.]