Saturday, 26 November 2016

Meriam's and Noura's stories or why getting married is such a big decision for women in the UAE.


I met Meriam and Noura through mutual friends. Meriam is a thirty-something Emirati woman and a successful businesswoman, living in the UAE’s capital. After pursuing higher education in Abu Dhabi, she travelled the world and is familiar with both the western and Emirati lifestyle. Like most Emirati ladies she looks traditional on the outside because she has to wear an abbaya and a scarf -called shaila – to cover her hair. But appearances are misleading.

Unlike most women here, Meriam is not at all afraid to broach sensitive subjects and to discuss topics which are considered taboo in the UAE. especially when talking to a non-Emirati. Throughout our conversation in the lobby of a posh hotel, her loosely attached shaila kept uncovering her beautiful dark hair. 

She told me that although her journey hasn’t been easy and the fact that she had to make some big sacrifices along the way, she is very proud to be an Emirati woman today:

“It’s great. I have the freedom I want. I own my own business, I travel abroad and earn my living. Women of my generation have so much more freedom than the previous generations.”

Whilst tradition still plays a major role in the lives of young Emirati men and women, major societal changes are taking place. Because most girls (about 95 %) pursue higher education, they discover a newfound freedom, travel abroad for their studies and gain financial independence.

“I don’t need a husband. I can take care of myself”, confirms Meriam.

Traditionally, marriages in the UAE are arranged by the families. But nowadays, young women wait longer and longer to get married or stay single altogether.

“Most of my female friends prefer not to get married”, Meriam states. “Many of them are lawyers and doctors. For those who marry, their marriage often ends in divorce. The problem is that men and women don’t know each other well enough before they get married.”

As young Emirati women are gaining more independence, they also aren’t willing to put up with anything anymore. When they discover that their husband has an affair or when he wants to marry another woman (men are legally allowed to have more than one wife according to sharia law), they file for divorce. That’s why so many couples split up a couple of months into their marriage”, says Meriam.

Only four decades ago, the UAE was a land of desert inhabited by Bedouin tribes, where people made a living out of camel farming, date harvesting and fishing. Nowadays, the young nation, which celebrates its 45th anniversary this year, has a modern urban society, and is a vibrant melting pot of nationalities and ethnicities. This leads to an exposure to different lifestyles.
Noura traveled to the UK to study and met her later to be British husband Ian over there. When I met her at her place, she looked like any young woman, dressed in jeans and a top and with her hair uncovered.

Although it is much more common for Emirati men to marry foreign women, according to Gulf News and the UAE National Bureau of Statistics, the number of Emirati women marrying foreigners is on the rise - by 15 per cent between 2009 and 2010. Noura is one of those Emirati women who chose her husband herself, something which is virtually impossible in the UAE.

Despite its modern appearance, society is still governed by sharia law, and the patriarchal rules which hold many challenges for women.
Meriam says one of the  key problems is the fact that it is illegal for men and women to live together before marriage, which means they cannot get to know each other. This law applies in the same way to the locals – as the Emirati are commonly referred to and who only make up 10 % of the population - as to the overwhelming majority of expats living in the UAE. Sexual relations outside of marriage are punishable by law, which makes dating very complicated. But for Emirati women, there is also the obligation to stay a virgin until they marry, even for modern women like Meriam.

Coming from a conservative family, Meriam gradually conquered her freedom, making sure as she set up her own business, that her family/father trusted her well enough to let her work together with men as well as women, and travel abroad on her own. After a while, she was allowed to travel alone without a guardian (which is normally required for Emirati women). “My family saw how committed I was. Also, I didn’t make bad use of my freedom”.

Noura later returned permanently to the UAE with her British husband, so that Noura, an engineer, could find work more easily and take advantage of the benefits afforded to Emirati nationals. However, couples like them (where the husband is a foreigner) face problems because of the patriarchal way in which society is organized. According to the law, women cannot transfer their nationality to their husband. Ian will therefore always be a stranger, whereas his children will get the UAE-nationality, an “absurd” situation according to Noura.

As for Meriam, who is able to succeed professionally but says she feels she has to sacrifice her personal life, she states that if she would find the “right man”, she would love to get married and have children. But the risk is too high: “I have all my rights. Why would I risk losing everything by getting married?”
According to the sharia, the husband decides whether his wife is allowed to work or travel or not.

But even in the very conservative environment that is the UAE, an inevitable transformation is taking place, and it’s women like Meriam and Noura driving it forward. The ever higher number of women who don’t want to get married is becoming a challenge for this small country, counting only 1.5 million nationals.
Recent studies suggest that as much as 30 % of women in the UAE prefer to stay single or are divorced. But is Emirati society ready to grant women more rights, so they can reach their full potential and have a life-work balance? There seems to be a big discrepancy between the Emirati traditions and what women want. “We have higher expectations of marriage. Emirati men like to take care of women. For instance, they open the door for you when you are entering a building or a car. This is their way of showing respect towards women. But we don’t need to be taken care of”.
Slowly but steadily, women are making their marks on society. The UAE seem to be at a turning point. Thanks to government programs women are promoted in leading positions ( the UAE has for instance 8 women in the national government out of 22 ministers). Many Emirati women are businesswomen who are thinking bigger and bigger. But just how long will they continue to sacrifice their personal lives? These are some of the stakes for the future of this young country.

Names and some facts in this article have been changed, to protect the identity of the interviewed women.

 Picture: a group of Emirati girls on a trip to Oman.


Why getting married is such a big decision for women in the United Arab Emirates..


I met Meriam and Noura through mutual friends. Meriam is a thirty-something Emirati woman and is a successful businesswoman, living in the UAE’s capital. After pursuing higher education in Abu Dhabi, she traveled the world and is familiar with both the Western and Emirati lifestyle. Like most Emirati ladies she looks traditional on the outside because she has to wear an abbaya and a scarf -called shaila – to cover her hair. But appearances are misleading.

Unlike most women of her generation, Meriam is not at all afraid to broach sensitive subjects and to discuss topics which are considered taboo in the UAE, especially in conversations with non-Emirati. Throughout our conversation in the lobby of a posh hotel, her loosely attached shaila keeps uncovering her beautiful dark hair. 

She tells me that although her journey hasn’t been easy and she has had to make some big sacrifices along the way, she is very proud to be an Emirati woman today:

“It’s great. I have the freedom I want. I own my own business, I travel abroad and earn my living. Women of my generation have so much more freedom than the previous generations.”

Whilst tradition still plays a major role in the lives of young Emirati men and women, major societal changes are taking place. Because most girls (about 95 %) pursue higher education, they discover a newfound freedom, travel abroad for their studies and gain financial independence.

“I don’t need a husband. I can take care of myself”, confirms Meriam.

Traditionally, marriages in the UAE are still arranged by the families. But nowadays, young women wait longer and longer to get married or stay single altogether.

“Most of my female friends prefer not to get married”, Meriam states. “Many of them are lawyers and doctors. For those who married, their marriage often ended in divorce. The problem is that men and women don’t know each other well enough before they get married.”

As young Emirati women are gaining more independence, they also aren’t willing to put up with anything anymore. When they discover that their husband has an affair or when he wants to marry another woman (men are legally allowed to have more than one wife according to sharia law), they file for divorce. That’s why so many couples split up a couple of months into their marriage”, says Meriam.

Only four decades ago, the UAE was a land of desert inhabited by Bedouin tribes, where people made a living out of camel farming, date harvesting and fishing. Nowadays, the young nation, which celebrates its 45th anniversary this year, has a modern urban society, and is a vibrant melting pot of nationalities and ethnicities. This leads to an exposure to different lifestyles.

Noura traveled to the UK to study and met her later to be British husband Ian over there. When I met her at her place, she looked like any young woman, dressed in jeans and a top and with her hair uncovered.
Although it is much more common for Emirati men to marry foreign women, according to Gulf News and the UAE National Bureau of Statistics, the number of Emirati women marrying foreigners is on the rise - by 15 per cent between 2009 and 2010. Noura is one of those Emirati women who chose her husband herself, something which is virtually impossible in the UAE.

Despite its modern appearance, society is still governed by sharia law, and the patriarchal rules which hold many challenges for women.
Meriam says one of the  key problems is the fact that it is illegal for men and women to live together before marriage, so they can get to know each other. This law also applies to the overwhelming majority of expats living in the UAE (the locals – as the Emirati are commonly referred to - only make up for some 10 % of the population). Moreover, women are supposed to be a virgin before they marry, even modern women like Meriam. Sexual relations outside of marriage are punishable by law (a rule which also applies to expats living in the UAE) which makes dating very complicated.

Coming from a conservative family, Meriam gradually conquered her freedom, making sure as she set up her own business, that her family/father trusted her well enough to let her work together with women as well as men, and travel abroad on her own. After a while, she was allowed to travel alone without a guardian (which is normally required for Emirati women when they travel). “My family saw how committed I was. Also, I didn’t make bad use of my freedom”.

Noura later returned permanently to the UAE with her British husband, so that Noura, an engineer, could find work more easily and take advantage of the benefits afforded to Emirati nationals. However, couples like them (where the husband is a foreigner) face problems because of the patriarchal way in which society is organized. According to the law, women cannot transfer their nationality to their husband. Ian will therefore always be a stranger, whereas his children will get the UAE-nationality, an “absurd” situation according to Noura.

As for Meriam, who is able to succeed professionally but says she feels she has to sacrifice her personal life, she states that if she would find the “right man”, she would love to get married and have children. But the risk is too high: “I have all my rights. Why would I risk losing everything by getting married?”
According to the sharia, the husband decides whether his wife is allowed to work or travel or not.

But in the very conservative environment that is the UAE, a transformation is taking place, and it’s women like Meriam and Noura driving it forward.
Recent studies suggest that as much as 30 % of women in the UAE prefer to stay single or are divorced. There seems to be a big discrepancy between the Emirati traditions and between what women want. “We have higher expectations of marriage. Emirati men like to take care of women. For instance, they open the door for you when you are entering a building or a car. This is their way of showing respect towards women. But we don’t need to be taken care of”. The ever higher number of women who don’t want to get married is becoming a challenge for this small country, counting 1.5 million nationals.

Slowly but steadily, women are making their marks on society. The UAE seem to be at a turning point. Thanks to government programs women are promoted in leading positions ( the UAE has for instance 8 women in the national government out of 22 ministers). Many Emirati women are businesswomen who are thinking bigger and bigger. But just how far can they go? Is Emirati society ready to give women more rights, so they can realize their full potential? These are some of the stakes for the future of this young country.

Names and some facts in this article have been changed, to protect the identity of the interviewed women.

 Picture: a group of Emirati girls on an excursion to Oman


 

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Born in Ouagadougou, 36-year-old politician and feminist Assita Kanko explains to me how she finds the courage to speak out against Female Genital.Mutilation.





After having come to Belgium at the age of 20 and having worked different jobs, Assita went into Belgian politics in 2010 with the objective to fight for women’s rights. In 2014 she gained notoriety with her book ‘Parce que tu es une fille” (Because you are a girl). In this autobiographical account, she recalls when she underwent the traumatic experience of FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) as a five-year-old in her native Burkina Faso.

She is one of a few women brave enough to speak out against this horrific practice that touches millions of girls each year worldwide, and has been interviewed by the likes of Al Jazeera, writes columns for the Huffington Post and -recently- published a remarkable opinion piece in the Guardian as a response to an editorial in the Economist, in which the author defended some "minor" forms of  FGM as “acceptable”.

I met with Assita on my home turf, in the lively Brussels' neighborhood of Matongé (known as “little Africa” because of its majority African population) and in one of my favorite café's, the Art Nouveau l'Ultime Atôme. Assita mentions that these cozy surroundings were the background when she wrote the first part of her new book "The second half", which treats the topics of gendercide, honor crimes, child marriages and FGM. We talk about her ongoing activism - in addition to being a member of different think-thanks and a speaker on feminist subjects, Assita is also a local politician in Elsene, the district of Brussels where we are having coffee.

When Assita arrived, many heads turned. The 36-year-old is nothing short of a celebrity in her own district (she also lives in Elsene), but also far beyond. She is regularly interviewed on feminism by Belgian media - Dutch and French speaking alike, which is exceptional in Belgium (Assita speaks French & Dutch perfectly - she started to learn the latter language a few years after she arrived in Belgium).

In her book “Because you are a girl”, Assita states that the hardest thing to bear for her was the indifference of the people around her, and the betrayal by her mother, who took her by the hand and said she was going to play at a friend’s house. Instead, she took her to an old house where a woman “cut” the girls of the village.

“As long as there is a woman or a girl suffering somewhere, we have to speak up. Indifference is a crime”. This is also the reason why she decided to talk about the fact that she had undergone FGM, after having kept it a secret for many years.  

According to Assita, a new kind of feminism is needed, a feminism in which women sustain each other. I tell her how I was startled by a remark from a female colleague at the Belgian Public Broadcasting. She couldn’t grasp why I was so interested in writing about Moroccan women’s rights, as surely this was not my problem.

Assita calls for total solidarity among women. “We all have sisters and mothers”. Even Assita’s  8-year-old daughter calls herself a feminist. “We also need more men who call themselves feminists”.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Pat Maharaj, from Durban (South-Africa)


Pat conquered Mount Kilimanjaro on the 19th of August, right on the morning of her 55th birthday. Why did she decide to embark on this project? And in what way did this journey transform her?

The 19th of August 2016 not only marks Pat’s 55th birthday this year, but is also testament to her willpower. After one year of training and six challenging days she made it to the summit of the 5895-meter-high Kilimanjaro.

“It was hard, although I didn’t suffer from nausea or altitude sickness. I concentrated on going slowly slowly, pole pole, step by step. Something I’m not used to doing in my daily life”.

The 1,50-meter-tall woman is a bundle of energy. On her way up the Kilimanjaro she took the time to halt whenever she saw climbers struggle and to encourage them not to give up.

On one of these occasions she passed three women whose water supplies had run out because the water inside their water bottles had frozen. Instead of turning her back on them, as other passersby did, Pat stopped to offer them her own water.

By coincidence, they all turned out to be South-Africans, as they found out afterwards when they ran into each other in a restaurant in Arusha, where Pat was identified by the three women as the “Indian” lady who came to their rescue.

Pat faced a series of setbacks herself recently. But during it all, she kept helping others through her voluntary work.

She says she learned a lot from her own struggles and she wants to empower other women going through difficult times. Her family went through job loss, financial difficulties and was burgled on several occasions, all in the space of three years. However, this didn’t deter Pat from doing good. Her faith kept her strong. Four years ago, she took in a homeless couple with an eight-month-old baby that had been living on the streets in front of her house. For several months, they shared Pat’s home, until it turned out that the young family had been stealing jewelry and other valuables from her family home all that time. But instead of letting her head down or becoming bitter, Pat decided to have a positive take on life.

“Instead of complaining about what had happened to me and the material things that I’d lost, I focused on what really mattered. I told myself that I could conquer any challenge if I set my mind to it. That’s when I got the idea to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.”

Despite her financial struggle to be able to afford the different training camps, the costs of equipment and the trip to Tanzania (not to speak of the costs of the climb), Pat stayed resolved. She says that her recipe for success is actually quite simple.

“You take one step at a time. I learned that my strength could only come from within, from believing in myself. From then on I just needed to stay determined and not let go until I achieved my goal.”

Pat says she hopes to inspire other women to follow their own path and live their dreams .