Moving to a new city can be daunting, sometimes more so as a woman. As much as we may try to deny it, women face different issues and challenges to men and safety and equality tend to be a greater concern. Dubai is a modern city that is progressing very quickly and adapting to the needs of the hundreds of nationalities of its residents. However, the many myths and stories you sometimes hear about the UAE can make it difficult to imagine life here as a woman. I hope to clear some of these up to provide a realistic idea of your time here as an expat and the differences you may experience.
Women living in Dubai are often on the receiving end of questions such as “Can you drive?” “Do you have to wear a burqa?” “Do you feel oppressed?” and the list goes on. As somebody who lives here, it is surprising to hear this as I’ve found life in Dubai as a woman empowering. Many women here are in powerful positions and also own successful businesses across the city, such as Reem Bint Ebrahim Al Hashimy, the Minister of State for International Cooperation; Sheikha Lubna Bint Khalid Al Qasimi, Minister of State for Tolerance; & Dr Raja Easa Al Gurg, Dubai-based businesswoman. Of course, women are permitted to drive if they have a valid license, and women are employed in all kinds of positions.
The UAE is the region’s leading country for gender equality and hosts many initiatives to improve the opportunities available for women. The Dubai Women Establishment was developed to support working women and targets governments to encourage laws that promote female empowerment. For example, it is compulsory to include women on the board of directors for large corporations and government agencies.
Last month, Dubai Women Establishment hosted the Global Women’s Forum Dubai which was supported by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. It is a leading global platform to promote gender equality. Over 100 global leaders and experts came together to discuss how to influence policies and partnerships to increase the positive impact of women in government, economy, society and the future. The event engaged over 3,000 attendees and is an important milestone in the UAE’s journey to increase the influence of women.
The UAE Gender Balance Council was also started to ensure that Emirati women play a leading role in the development of the UAE and implement best practices to achieve gender balance targets. The UAE hopes to become one of the world’s top 25 countries for gender equality by next year. Currently, women occupy 66% of public sector jobs which is one of the highest percentages worldwide, and 30% of senior leadership positions.
Work-place harassments are rare and there are support establishments in place for employees if they have any issues. The national law prohibits discrimination based on gender, race or faith and this behavior is subject to serious investigation and appropriate actions are taken. I’ve seen lots of women working in all levels of seniority across a range of industries. I’ve also met women in senior roles often at earlier stages in their career than you might expect in the UK which reflects the excellent progression opportunities that women have here. However, one difference I have noticed is that many job advertisements will specify whether they are looking for a female or male applicant which is not legal in the UK.
Dubai is largely safe for women. Unwanted attention is rare and a recent survey found the UAE to be the safest country in the world, with 96.1% of respondents feeling safe to walk outside alone at night. For me this is one of the best things about living here, especially in comparison to London where crime rates are much higher. You can walk alone without fear or feeling the need to look over your shoulder. Of course, there are some situations to be wary of, but most areas are extremely safe and I personally haven’t had any experiences where I’ve been really scared or concerned.
Although Dubai is quite liberal compared to other areas in the region, there are some strict policies. You can’t be seen nude in public. Swimsuits and bikinis are totally acceptable by the beaches and pools – not so much outside of those environments. One of the common misconceptions is that women in Dubai must be covered from head to toe but this is not the case. Modest dressing is encouraged, but it is fine to go out in dresses and skirts – just ensure you are not flashing anybody, and the hemline is not too high. This usually applies when you are in public areas such as malls, but when you’re going out to hotels or clubs, usually you can wear what you like.
Many venues, amusement parks, cinemas and more host women only days. There are also Ladies’ Days or Ladies’ Nights that you can attend throughout the week in restaurants and clubs. This includes special deals or free treats for women such as drinks and discounts. Usually, men are welcome to attend these events but won’t benefit from the same offers. VOX Cinema hosts a Ladies’ Night once a month. Partnering with Victoria’s Secret and other brands, tickets provide snacks, drinks, and exclusive goody-bags!
Platforms such as MeetUp and Facebook have female-only groups for mums, single ladies, working ladies and more. You’ll find plenty of opportunities to meet other women and share advice. I have been welcomed into girls groups on WhatsApp and Facebook that have hundreds of active participants in Dubai who schedule meetups and share recommendations on all subjects. It’s been useful to me as a new expat in Dubai to learn about what’s going on and have a support network to ask questions about things I don’t yet know about living here.
Dubai features many designated women-only areas in public spaces and on public transport where ladies can feel comfortable in their own space. The Dubai Metro and the public buses have a women and children’s pink carriage and seating area, men within these areas are fined heavily. There are also Pink Taxis – cabs driven by women, for women. There are also some ladies-only parking spaces which are identifiable by pink lines on the ground.
Some parks are dedicated to ladies and children only during certain days and hours each week including Mondays at Al Mamzar Beach Park, Wednesdays at Jumeirah Beach Park and all weekdays at Al Safa 2 Park! Wild Wadi – a water park – dedicates Thursday nights to ladies and children, with an all-female team of staff. The Pink Priority areas and events, although met with mild criticism, allow women to feel safe and comfortable, especially those from modest or religious backgrounds.
There are ladies-only salons in most locations around Dubai, too. For those who are uncomfortable with men working at salons – this is a big plus! If you’re not concerned by this there are mixed salons scattered around the city as well. The same goes for spas, swimming pools, and saunas, sometimes including the facilities in your apartment building too. The majority of saunas are separate but swimming pools and spas are generally mixed.
Another frequently asked question is whether women can own property alone in the UAE. The answer is of course! In fact, 30% of UAE property is owned by women and it is very easy to do so, especially with the current property market and the variety of options available right now. Many women live here alone too, this is not uncommon and women tend to feel very safe doing so.
In the Western media, life in the UAE is often sensationalised and depending on where you get your information from, it’s understandable to see why some people have such a different impression of what life is like here. Of course, it is a good precautionary measure to be aware of the laws as some of them will differ from most other countries around the world. You are always going to notice differences in the lifestyle between two different countries or cities, but Dubai will allow you to feel comfortable and empowered as a woman. The UAE is a welcoming country full of exciting opportunities for women where you can feel safe, protected and free to live a full life and achieve your maximum potential.
This article is part of the expat diaries series. Click here to view the rest of the series.
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