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

9 thoughts on “Women’s VIP status in the UAE

  1. That’s an interesting insight and puts some of the separation into a more positive light. I remember talking to a Western woman who was upset and offended when she was in Dubai because she was ‘forced’ to stand in a queue for women only instead of being allowed to stand in whichever one she wanted. I think there would be definite advantages to a women-only environment – especially in the gym!

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