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Empowerment of women crucial for UAE society: Sheikha Fatima

posted on 02/12/2002: 1979 views

In every aspect of national effort, Her Highness Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, wife of the President H.H. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and President of the UAE General Women's Union, continues to be a pillar of strength to the country. In this wide-ranging, exclusive interview with "Gulf News,” published today in a special supplement on the occasion of the 31st UAE National Day, Sheikha Fatima discusses issues important to the UAE society in general, and women in particular.

This includes women as members of the Federal National Council, the personal status law, and charity work in the UAE, as well as other subjects. The following is the full text of the interview:

Q. The UAE society is witnessing a surge in divorces. Statistics released by the Marriage Fund show divorces among UAE nationals who got married in 1993 stood at 17 per cent, which increased to 35 per cent in 1996. How in your opinion, Your Highness, can this problem be eliminated?

A. First of all, we have to note that the problem is a complex one. Hence, individual efforts will not resolve it. The problem is associated with other social issues which need additional effort and time to be solved. We try to increase our efforts to solve this problem to ensure the stability of the family, which is the basis of society. I cannot hide my distress at the increase of divorces and I perceive this problem as being dangerous as it is a real threat to the future of the nation. It also squanders the efforts, plans and strategies adopted by the country and its institutions for the nation's progress.

Divorce means the separation of parents. The damage not only affects each one of them and their frame of mind, but the negative effects also affect children, who are close to our hearts and are our hope for the future. How can these innocent beings live a happy and normal life when circumstances have forced them to grow up deprived of the affection of one of their parents? For this reason, the UAE General Women's Union, in cooperation with the Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs and Awqaf, started a programme called Ro'yaa (vision).

The programme offers the opportunity to one of the parents, who does not have custody of their children, to spend the weekend with them. The goal is to rectify the relationship between the parents and their children and to preserve the psychological well-being of the children. The UAE General Women's Union and the National Women's Follow-up Office are putting all their efforts to contain the problem. This is being achieved through lectures, conferences and educational programmes that are targeted at national men and women. They warn them of the negative consequences of divorce.

I believe that these efforts have been reaping positive results because today's younger generation has acquired a great level of maturity, awareness and culture, all of which prevent them from falling prey to negative elements. I always advise our young women to be better equipped with perseverance and patience. And, I advise our young men to be more resilient in bearing responsibility and to be more patient. They should follow the example of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH).

I think that the personal status law will be able to limit the problem of divorce and will facilitate the roles played by the offices of family guidance and counselling which are part of the Sharia courts in Abu Dhabi and Dubai so as to bring about a reconciliation between the two parents.

Based on this perspective, it is important for the personal status law to be issued quickly for the family and the child. I think that the problem is a natural result of the change that has taken place in society and an outcome of the revolution brought about by the introduction of education and the increase in female enrolment.

I call for a change in the social concepts that harm the family and society so that the equilibrium is maintained.

Q. In previous statements, you have indicated your preference for the use of the expression, 'delay in marriage age', rather than spinster. In your opinion, what are the reasons behind the increase of this group? Do you think that society is capable of finding a solution to this problem and how? What practical plans has the UAE General Women's Union presented to solve this problem?

A. The delay in marriage age is the accurate description of this problem, one which will not hurt our daughters' feelings. This issue demands from us frankness, courage and practical discussion to find a solution. If UAE men think calmly about the matter, they will realise that the women that suit them best as wives are the women of their own country. This is because national women are capable of understanding national men, their culture, customs and traditions. There are many reasons for the increase in this dangerous problem which threatens the stability of society.

One of these reasons is materialism and the exaggerated requirements and the increase in dowry. If fathers take notice, they will realise the extent of the crime they are committing by asking for a high dowry, a crime not only against their children but the country as well. The means to solve this problem lies with an educated young generation that can, through understanding and patience, convince their families of its dangerous consequences. Marriage to foreigners is as dangerous as refraining from marrying at all.

If marriage to foreigners brings us a generation of children that are disassociated from the country and its culture, then, similarly, abstaining from marriage will lead the youth astray.

Hence, why should we push our children to this abyss and wilfully harm our country? Everyone should understand that a high dowry does not buy the family happiness and that extravagant wedding parties can lead to debt. Financial problems cannot achieve stability for the youth.

The UAE General Women's Union tries hard to offer guidance on this problem through lectures, field meetings and gatherings. Some families have taken the initiative themselves and this is an encouraging response to our efforts.

I commend the role played by the Marriage Fund, which was established in 1992 under the directives of the President, His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and Their Highnesses the Rulers of other emirates. In only 10 years, the fund has helped many UAE youth to get married. It has arranged 27 mass weddings between 1992 and the end of 2001. The total number of marriages during this period was 1,837.

This year alone, there were 10 mass weddings in which 510 men and women participated. With change and the building of a modern state, as well as the advancement of women in the field of education, our understanding of what constitutes, as a balanced marriage should also change. Competition is not required between man and woman. Instead, they should complement each other. It is not necessary that the man should have a higher educational qualification than the woman. What is important is that he abides by the religion's teachings so that the woman is assured that he will respect her and preserves her dignity.

Q. A strong family presents society with individuals who are able to serve it. UAE society has recently witnessed an increase in teenage delinquency. What are the reasons that have led to this and turned it into a widespread problem? How can we rehabilitate this group and incorporate them into society?

A. This is the first time I have heard that teenage delinquency is a widespread problem as I base my opinions on studies and statistics. But I agree with you that there are individual cases, but they have not yet reached a level where it can be labelled as a problem. Generally, the situation is still under control. This question relates to our children who are at a critical stage in their lives.

The world suffers from problems faced by teenagers as the age may be accompanied by reckless and careless acts. The child tends to take decisions alone and sometimes refuses to listen to the advice of adults thinking that it overrules his individuality. This is a problem and the solution lies in building cooperation between the family and the school in addition to the role played by the media in protecting youngsters from negative influences.

I realised the dangers that teenagers could face and hence we established a girls' club as part of the General Women's Union. Years back, women's associations throughout the UAE offered computer courses and vocational and handicraft training.

This was in addition to the establishment of girls' clubs throughout the UAE. Institutions and organisations that deal with youngsters also offer training in a number of skills. These were the result of Sheikh Zayed's directives and his interest in the welfare of the young generation.

I personally encourage the Holy Quran memorisation centres, as religion is the safety vault for the young generation of both sexes. As far as girls are concerned, I whisper into the ear of each mother an advice to get closer to her daughter and try to understand her thoughts and help her when in need. It is every mother's responsibility to give her daughter special care, especially during that age, as they must not be allowed to fall prey to free time.

The family must ensure there is no interference from foreign maids because this problem worries me immensely. They are capable of planting foreign values in the minds of youngsters. The parents must be told that it is essential to take care of their children during this critical age. Parents should fill youngster's spare time with activities like sports. This is in accordance with Prophet Mohammed's (PBUH) sayings and the instructions of Omar Ibn Al Khattab in raising children.

If we follow this course we will be able to protect our children from the dangers of delinquency and drug addiction. In the very few cases of drug addiction, the drug addict has been treated and rehabilitated. This is done as a joint effort between the ministries of Health and Interior where the addict is treated as a patient and not as a criminal.

Q. In light of the statistics that show the rising numbers of female graduates in higher education, what is the best way in your opinion, Your Highness, to engage the UAE woman into becoming an active participant in society to support the country's development process?

A. I cannot express the extent of my joy when I attend a graduation ceremony of a new batch from the university. The numbers reveal that 88.7 per cent of national women are qualified and more than 57 per cent of university chairs are taken up by females. These numbers make me proud because I believe that education serves as a window through which the woman can have a look at the civilisation of nations. It is also our means to continue building our society.

This is a process that Sheikh Zayed believes in as he has said the biggest investment is the investment in creating educated generations because money does not last but education remains the basis for progress. Only education can make a woman an active participant in society and a good wife who knows her religion's guidelines as far as her family and herself are concerned.

Education also helps women solve social problems. Based on this perspective comes my call for the UAE woman to continue her education and pursue master's and PhD degrees so that she is able to prove her abilities. The circumstances are ripe for such a pursuit; especially that Sheikh Zayed supports and encourages women's education and progress in all fields. Job opportunities are open to women in all fields. I have made sure that in every graduation ceremony I attend I take the responsibility to see that all the graduates, both males and females, find jobs because the country needs their contribution.

I have also asked women to venture into new areas of specialisation, as we still need national women in fields such as science, technology and the media. Expatriates constitute 70 per cent of the workforce in these fields which means that we need our women to become a part of the development process and the nationalisation of the workforce.

Q. There is a typical, negative and downgrading image of women in media organs. Is it possible to change this image and how? What is the role of the media in a society that has its own identity such as that of the UAE?

A. Yes it is possible to change this image. The matter needs extra time and effort. But please allow me to point out that if we have media outlets that do not present the real image of women, we also do have media outlets that have a realistic outlook on women's status, the nature of their issues and the obstacles to their participation in the process of development. All we hope for is for the woman to succeed in portraying a true image in the media through her success and progress in all fields.

This will need great effort and a high level of patience because this typical image of women will not change overnight.

We have to struggle to remove all these elements that tarnish this image so that a day will come when the media truly reflects the woman's image, respects her nature and does not use her as a commodity or a tool in advertising and promotions, something that is not in line with our culture and Islamic identity. And, this is exactly the role of the media in UAE society. The importance of the media today supersedes its traditional role in relaying news alone.

Today, it has become so powerful that it not only is capable of affecting one's beliefs and behaviour, but also in bringing about a change in perceptions, turning matters into reality and building a base for public opinion. Hence, the role of the media is considered effective and instrumental in speeding up the process of changing women's image. Drawing up a media policy directed towards the development of women and their issues is very important. Its importance increases as we are in the third millennium and in light of the international changes. The coming period requires the development of this policy so that its effectiveness is widened.

Q. The conference on media and women convened last February in Abu Dhabi adopted the details of an Arab media agreement regarding Arab women. What will be achieved if the clauses of this agreement are implemented? How will this implementation serve the issues concerning Arab Women?

A. This announcement has been placed in safe hands following its approval by the Arab Women's second summit which was convened in Jordan. The Abu Dhabi announcement is an official document and there will be a process that will be followed when implemented. This will be done in coordination with the ministers of information in all Arab countries as well as media officials, so that we are able to put issues relating to Arab women on the agenda of the Arab media and those which correspond to our identity, culture and customs. I do not want to pick on events or list the outcome and achievements when this announcement is implemented.

I request you to read the clauses of this announcement where the leading women in the Arab world have asked to draw up an Arab media strategy which has four dimensions. The first one is the nationalistic dimension in which the agreement urges the portrayal of nationalistic issues that relate to Arab causes as well as highlighting the struggle of the Palestinian women against Israeli occupation and unveiling the inhuman acts against the Arab women who are under siege, occupation and imprisonment.

The announcement also calls for bringing to the fore the active role played by Arab women down the ages and to present it through the media which will support contemporary Arab women and the positive role played by them in all fields.

There will also be an annual award for the best media works that serve Arab women's issues. The second dimension is the social and legal one, under which the agreement ensures that media organs are an integral part of the social, cultural, political, and economic environment. These organs must contribute in the development of this environment by what it presents in terms of ideas and values.

Also, a database will be established which will feature an archive and will specialise in Arab women's issues and their image in the media. Centres for research and translation will also be established. The third dimension of the agreement looks at the professional aspect and has requested that media outfits in Arab countries enable Arab women to work in the media field without any discrimination or bigotry.

The last dimension relates to the intellectual aspect of the media, which stresses the necessity of outlining ethical guidelines when dealing with women's issues. This is what the First Ladies and leading women have reflected through the discussion and representation of these dimensions. They have revealed the depth of their perception in these complicated issues and that is the relationship of women with the media.

Q. The Cabinet has agreed on a project of establishing a Higher Committee for Motherhood and Child. What role will this council play? What are your directions and instructions for this project?

A. There are many goals that the council will try to achieve. It has become crucial to draw up a strategy with regard to women, the child and the family. The problems faced by families are inter-related and associated with different parties, and therefore, it is required that all expertise must come together. There also must be cooperation between governmental and non-governmental sectors.

The council will work on framing a general strategy for the country, but especially concerning women so that there is real participation by them in the process of development. This is to achieve the biggest advantage for society to look into all issues that face the family. It will also provide an outline to solve them because we need to evaluate the past and have scientific studies that will guarantee the success of our future plans. Besides, it will help us face international changes and developments in the age of globalisation.

Based on this, my instructions will concentrate on the importance of having a second look into the laws, the problems and the way they are discussed. There will be special focus on problems that are faced by women so that we take advantage of their efforts and protect the family and the children for a better future for the nation and the citizen. In fact, we have taken a great stride so that this project sees the light soon. There are many practical steps that have been implemented and we are now in the process of putting together the structure of the higher committee and then the budget.

I believe next year will witness the establishment of this committee to function as an independent authority that follows the Cabinet. Members will include all those who are concerned with issues relating to women, the child and the family. A group of legal experts is close to finalising the set up of this authority for it to be presented to the FNC and the Cabinet for approval.

Q. The UAE General Women's Union celebrated its silver jubilee in 2000. How do you evaluate its performance over the last 27 years? What kind of role will the Union play in future?

A. The Union, since its establishment in 1975, has achieved many of its goals, most importantly to help the UAE woman progress spiritually, culturally and socially and take her to wider horizons so that she participates in the nation's progress. There is no doubt that the Union is the best channel for the woman to voice her problems. Her voice is also strongly present when laws pertaining to her welfare are discussed in the FNC. We also cannot ignore the role of other women's associations in eliminating illiteracy and fighting the smoking habit among youngsters.

The Union has drawn up a successful strategy to create a new generation that knows its responsibilities. In a short time, it has made women participate actively in the development process. The statistics indicate this big role that has been played by these associations. They have trained UAE women in different fields and have made them gain skills in addition to establishing schools for children and nurseries. We also must not forget the role they have played to preserve and spread awareness of the UAE's identity.

Official statistics indicate that the number of girls who have joined the educational process increased rapidly in five years from 9,657 in 1994 to 99,363 in 1999. This figure covers all levels of education. The number of national women in employment reached 38,657 in 2000. The daughter of the UAE has experienced herself in all fields of work. Her participation in the media reached 14.8 per cent, higher education 35.4 per cent and trade and economy 13.2 per cent.

The Union has also taken part in important conferences on the development of women. One of the most important of these international conferences was in Mexico in 1975 and the International Women's Conference in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1980.

The Union was also a part of the UAE delegation which went to Nairobi in 1985 for a conference that issued the Nairobi strategy for women's progress until the year 2000. The UAE has implemented that strategy.

The Union participated in the fourth conference for women in Beijing, China, in 1995 as well as the UN Habitat Conference on Human Settlements convened in Istanbul, Turkey. The last of these conferences was the Women and Media conference in Abu Dhabi. We also participated in the 11th Arab Women's Scouts Meet in 1988 in Abu Dhabi and the second conference for Food Security and Food Stuffs Industries in the Arabian Peninsula in 1988. In 1999, the Marriage Fund convened a conference in Abu Dhabi under the title, 'Gulf Family: From the Requirements of the Present to the Challenges of the Future'.

The Union takes part in activities as part of national and social celebrations such as UAE National Day and Arab Day for the Family. The Union has also worked towards bringing alive the national heritage and preserving it through the establishment of the handicrafts centre in 1978. The Union also supports charities. The Union continues to devise plans for women in the UAE. It ensures their involvement to mould the future, while at the same time it reminds women that the first role is that of a mother to bring up a generation ingrained with an Islamic and Arab identity.

In future, it will concentrate on Euro-Arab dialogue. The Union will liase with American and European associations to bring different points of view closer. I am confident that any objective evaluation of the Union will be positive. I look forward to more work and successful projects by all women's associations which have qualified and dedicated national women.

Q. The working UAE woman faces numerous obstacles that do not allow her to get involved fully in the workforce. What is Your Highness' evaluation of this problem? Do you encourage women's entrance to the job market? Do you believe that the solution lies in changing the laws or is it society's perception of women's work which plays a role in this issue?

A. No doubt, I support women's work. In a society like ours it is not possible to give up the contributions of women's services who represent half of its strength. Hence, how can we deny her the opportunity to work? There might be some problems that stand in the woman's path in giving her best. There may be some voices that call on women to go back to their homes and blame the working woman for all the problems that have arisen in our society.

I would like to remind those who attack the working woman that this is not a modern problem. Women in our society have been working down the ages. In the past, the woman worked without giving up her responsibilities towards her home and children. Today, the working woman is capable of balancing her work outside the home and doing her job as a wife and mother. Most important is for all of us to try to provide the appropriate environment for her to carry out this dual role.

The problems that the family suffers today is general and is not limited to the working woman. I see, for example, many non-working mothers who leave their children in the care of maids. I put the responsibility of this problem on the woman, whether she is working or a housewife.

The woman has to realise that the most important work is to take care of her children. It is negligence when she leaves this great duty to a maid, regardless of the maid's nationality. Even if the maid's presence is crucial, it is important that her role is limited and does not extend to the upbringing of the children. This responsibility should lie with the parents alone.

This and other social problems are not the result of women working but are the result of the fast changes in society. I am confident that we will be able to overcome such negative elements with an increase of understanding and an awareness on the part of the woman and the man of their responsibilities towards their family and society. For its part, the country has tried to establish this concept by safeguarding a woman's status through legal guarantees that ensure she achieves excellence in her work without affecting her duties towards her family.

We are now going to study all the labour laws in an attempt to find the shortcomings of these laws with regard to women. On its completion, the Union will organise a conference on the issue to be attended by universities, fatwa committees, civil service authority and various organisations so that we can formulate a law that achieves society's interests and protects the working woman so that she is able to carry out her responsibilities towards her family.

This, in my perception, is the correct method to deal with the issue so that we provide the working woman with guarantees for her to progress at home and outside. The laws pertaining to work allow the woman to attend to her responsibilities as a mother and in turn she realises that her role in the family is more important. Her work should benefit her and not destroy the fabric of her family.

Q. You have instructed the research section in the Union to draw up a national strategy for women in 2020 in association with the UN Development Fund for Women in addition to other institutions in the country. Could Your Highness explain the goals behind this action and your role in overseeing the project?

A. The national strategy for the advancement of women in the UAE is one of the most important projects which the Union is overseeing. It comes as part of the Union's interest in the well-being of the UAE woman and in facilitating her with the best environment to advance. This leading project aims at drawing up a strategy which is based on the principles of the Islamic Sharia and values of Arab society.

The Union in early 2000 organised, over a period of five months, continual meetings at its headquarters in Abu Dhabi with representatives of the parties involved in this project. They had given suggestions regarding this strategy and I was continually following up on the meetings.

These were workshops that involved the government, private and NGOs. At the end of these meetings, the Union presented a final report which elaborated on how to turn the vision regarding women in the media, environment, economics, politics, education and other fields to reality through non-governmental associations in a way that serves the woman and helps her progress. I hope that this project will assist in increasing women's activity in the country's development process.

I believe that the most important achievement of the strategy would be planning national programmes that are needed to be implemented. I do believe that this project is a quality leap for the UAE.

Q. Under your directives many awards have been created to honour voluntary work in UAE society such as, for example, the Welfare Prize in 1997. How do you evaluate voluntary work in the country?

A. We have to agree on the fact that any voluntary work comes from the individual. A girl can see in herself a natural willingness to get involved in general service without anyone forcing her to do so or seeking any gains.

The real problem is not in the type of activities of women's associations, but in women's understanding of the meaning, value and importance of charity work which is an offshoot of social work. The problem is that this generation which is the generation of affluence, has not lived as we had and has not seen what we have seen.

Hence, it is not enthusiastic in getting involved in charity and reducing the suffering of women in remote areas. Charity work is not a favour or pity from the volunteer. It is an active role played by a human being through which he helps society. It is also a duty for the citizens so that they give back to the country. Charity work is highest national work and based on this concept the President was extremely enthusiastic and supportive of the Union's establishment.

Based on this, the wives and sisters of the Rulers of the Emirates and I have gone out as volunteers to serve our nation and the daughters of our nation. Social work is not a sign of luxury or a waste of time in a country like ours. Through voluntary work we come to know the general problems faced by people which are an additional burden on the country. We try to find a solution to these problems so that it lessens this burden and serves the nation.

This generation has found everything ready and easily available in their hands. I tell them that women's voluntary work has passed through several stages. In the beginning it was to bring the woman out of her isolation and educate her on how to participate in any dialogue. It was an attempt to make her participate in activities that interest her and benefit her in her private life so that she can develop her life within her home and family. It transported her from a rural life to a modern one.

With the establishment of the Union, the primary goal was to uplift the woman and increase her capabilities. This was to pave the way for her participation in national work and development. The Union has taken on assignments which followed steps taken in the development of the country. These steps include the education of women and eradication of illiteracy.

But I do confess that charity work in my country still needs more work and consideration, especially from the new generation. We need the efforts and energy of female university students.

Q. You grew up at a time that was different than the one we live in today. You have also lived through the instrumental changes over the two periods. What are the similarities in your opinion between then and now? What are the positive and negative aspects of the environment in which we live in today compared to that of the past?

A. First of all, the set of principles and values that govern us and our customs and traditions which we inherit, one generation after the other, never change. Our roots are deep. What remains after that is the fact that every age has its characteristics, which make it different. We are now in the age of globalisation and satellites which have made the world a small village.

Years ago and in the middle of the past century, women did not have the great fortune of receiving an education as is the case now. You will agree with me that education has greatly contributed to developing women's maturity and realisation of her society's issues.

In the beginning of the third millennium, the amazing technological advancements have provided today's generation a level of luxury that was not even a part of the dreams of the previous generations. All these are considered to be additional merits which the human race enjoys today.

Yet, I still have reservations on the fast pace


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