Women’s education in the Arab world has increased substantially in the last several decades, both in absolute terms and relative to men. However, when looking at the Arab world, understanding that there are vast differences culturally, politically, and socially among the countries is essential. This essay looks at the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, where women share a similar cultural and socio-economic context.

It is also important when discussing education to consider both formal and informal modes. Dependency on statistics alone as indicators paints only a one dimensional image. Any examination of the role of and access to women’s education will be ineffective without considering the overall context. Within the GCC, the focus of this essay is on the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The Context

The UAE is quickly transforming its traditional tribal society into a modern economy and society. Dubai, especially, has established itself as a financial hub, attracting expatriate workers and investors from around the world. It has become a metropolis, sporting an array of ambitious real-estate projects. Emirati citizens comprise only 20% of the five million inhabitants. The remaining 80% are foreign residents; this directly affects Emirati national identity. Abu Dhabi, home to the federal capital, drives the UAE’s economic boom. It controls more than 85% percent of the country’s total output capacity and over 90% of its crude oil reserves.[1] The economic metamorphosis of the UAE greatly affects its female citizens and their access to education and employment.

Various GCC governments have rapidly improved female access to higher education to the extent that in many countries, female graduates now outnumber male graduates. Government initiatives, such as extensive public sector investments in the health and education sectors, have been significant in bridging the gender gap. Current statistics show gender equality in primary and secondary education, while female students have overtaken males in tertiary education, so that the ratio is 60:40. Emirati women are also undergoing a socio-cultural transition due to foreign influences, while still adhering to cultural and religious traditions.

Beyond Access: Dangers of Devaluing Women’s Education 

Specifically, women are entering new professional fields such as engineering and information technology. The ratio of females to males in the workforce is increasing, and some women have been appointed to high-profile positions within the government and the business world. However, restrictions still apply to some professions, and support for female advancements varies among the emirates. Although the GCC female population stands at 48%, the rate of female participation in the workforce across the states stands at 19.2%. This low rate is not due to their level of education. It is more likely a combination of factors ranging from cultural and religious sensitivities to geographic isolation from major centers of employment.

Schooling in the UAE is free and compulsory for all nationals of both genders. All schools are gender-segregated, and instruction and textbooks are provided free. Two-thirds of all university students are women, the majority of whom choose to study social sciences and humanities. The proportion of female students is increasing every year, and women are more likely to graduate than men. For instance, 50% of the students admitted to the class of 2006 at the University of Sharjah were women, but the graduating class was 71% female.[2] Statistics from the class of 2007 at UAE University (unpublished) show that 74% of those admitted were women, and 79% of graduates were female.[3] Educational attainment has been consistently high across the emirates, with literacy rates reaching 90% in 2007 and with 77% of Emirati women earning university degrees.

Women have made tremendous headway in professions such as Engineering and Information Technology, with the support of and dedication of resources by the government. However, social mores and gender biases play a large part in subject choices, creating the “feminization” of certain fields of study.[4] Some evidence suggests that this has resulted in employers’ devaluation of degrees in “female” subjects. Traditions play a key role in women’s professional access. A UAE law was recently criticized by Human Rights Watch for requiring permission from a woman’s husband or guardian as a prerequisite for her employment, which would violate international law by treating women as minors.[5] This imposes further restrictions on women’s employment opportunities.[6] In many instances, familial conflicts are cited as the cause of both resignations by and termination of employment for many women. Does what young women learn simply reinforce gender stereotypes?

Women are inclined to join the public sector rather than the private because it is deemed more respectable by society, requires shorter working hours, and shows commitment to the country. Also, because of cultural stigma many Emirati women still have few opportunities for professional development and promotion and are often awarded less professional respect than foreign women.

The structure of patriarchal societies has not so much weakened or disappeared but merely readjusted to form a modern “neo-patriarchy.” This is prevalent throughout the GCC where access to female education is no longer the problem. What does seem to be an impediment is the dislocation between education and the employment sector and the unrelenting cultural stigmas associated with certain professions.

Education does not relieve a woman of the burdens and expectations associated with being a mother and wife. Though women are gaining more access to education at all levels there is no alleviation of societal expectations of their traditional gender roles. While women take on the extra load to pursue education, society is not evolving its expectations of men in supporting women.

With regard to the inequalities that exist not only in educational access but also in employment, it is worth noting that in the region, gender-based discrimination in hiring, compensation, and promotion persists. Women increasingly participate in business, medicine, arts, politics, and education.[7] With the exception of a few high-profile women who hold prominent positions, women’s overall influence in the UAE remains limited.[8] As of yet, women’s ability to influence policies at the emirate level is minimal, both formally, as members of each ruler’s advisory council, and informally.

The UAE government has introduced “Emiratization,” a nationalization program to promote employment in the private sector which requires companies in fields such as financial services and insurance to employ and train 4-5% of Emirati nationals annually. This means that as a result, private-sector companies have started to aggressively recruit young Emirati women to fill these quotas. Female participation in the UAE workforce varies across individual emirates: 10.5% in Abu Dhabi, 29.5% in Ajman, and 17% in both Dubai and Sharjah. Despite these figures, there have been positive developments in the UAE workforce, with the number of national female workers rapidly increasing. The Ministry of Labor no longer allows work permits for foreigners working in so-called traditional female roles.[9] Nonetheless, Emirati women have complained of difficulty in advancing beyond entry-level positions. Arguably, the program has created a “sticky floor for young and ambitious UAE national women.”[10] Very few women are employed in key sectors of the economy such as oil and gas, construction, utilities, shipping, and manufacturing, and those that are tend to remain in clerical jobs.


Tremendous progress has been made in the Gulf for females in all sectors of education. Through the establishment of leadership programs, some headway has been made for women to enter into business and professional life. With 20% of the gross national budgets of GCC countries being spent on education, the focus must now be on quality rather than quantity. This means challenging socio- cultural and religious barriers that reinforce gender-stereotyping. Perhaps an investigation into the role of men in stereotyping is a prerequisite to real dynamic change. Furthermore, a synergy between the private sector and higher educational establishments is required through mentorship schemes that heighten awareness to high achieving women and encourage the ambitions of younger women. The full potential of future generations will not be realized without earnestly addressing these challenges.


[1]. Ibrahim Al Abed, Paula Vine, Peter Hellyer and Peter Vine, eds., UAE Yearbook 2008 (London: Trident Press, 2008), www.uaeyearbook.com/default.asp.

[3]. Unpublished statistics from UAE University Facts and Figures Report, 2008.

[4]. John Willoughby, “Segmented Feminization and the Decline of Neopatriarchy in GCC Countries of the Persian Gulf,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East Vol. 28, No. 1 (2008).

[5]. Report on UAE Draft Labor Law (New York: Human Rights Watch), p. 11.

[6]. Report on UAE Draft Labor Law, p.11.

[7]. Hamida Ghafour, “Women of Influence,” The National, April 20, 2008, http://www.thenational.ae/article/20080420/ONLINESPECIAL/992306773.

[8]. Ola Galal, “Women Directors Few and Far between in Gulf Firms,” Reuters, May 19, 2008, http://www.reuters.com/article/lifestyleMolt/idUSL1966031220080519.

[9]. Samir Salama, New Emiritisation Drive, April 8, 2008, http://archive.gulfnews.com/indepth/labour/Emiritisation/10049370.html.

[10]. Bilkhair, Global Perspective: Political Reforms for Access and Equity: Women’s Education in the United Arab Emirates.


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