Women's rights in the United Arab Emirates (2022)

Although it might be easy to forget, women’s rights in the United Arab Emirates conform to Islamic law and expats need to do their homework.

A country of contradictions, where you might see abayas and bikinis or mosques and Irish pubs alongside each other, the United Arab Emirates is unique, to say the least. Although emirates like Abu Dhabi and Dubai are expat havens, the UAE remains a Muslim country; therefore women’s rights in the United Arab Emirates conform to Islamic law. As an expat woman, therefore, it is crucial that you do your research to understand what rights you have – and what rights you don’t have.

This helpful guide will review gender rights in the UAE and provide important information about your rights and responsibilities. It includes the following sections:

  • Women’s rights and gender equality in the United Arab Emirates
  • Attitudes towards women in the United Arab Emirates
  • Laws on harmful practices in the United Arab Emirates
  • Women’s political rights in the United Arab Emirates
  • Economic rights of women in the United Arab Emirates
  • Women’s health and reproductive rights in the United Arab Emirates
  • Educational rights of women in the United Arab Emirates
  • Women’s freedom from violence in the United Arab Emirates
  • Family and divorce laws in the United Arab Emirates
  • Breastfeeding laws in the United Arab Emirates
  • Feminism in the United Arab Emirates
  • Women’s rights organizations in the United Arab Emirates

Women’s rights and gender equality in the UAE

Women’s rights in the UAE are often contradictory. The country takes the first position of gender equality in the Gulf, however, it is 49th in the world. It remains a highly traditional culture, even alongside the glitz and glamour of being an expat hub. The country has signed onto, or ratified, progressive international treaties on protecting women, but doesn’t often have the structures to implement changes.

Women have the same constitutional rights as men but remain completely unprotected in key areas. Women can vote, drive, own property, work, and get an education – however, some of these require approval from their guardian. Expat women should keep this in mind because, although places like Dubai and Abu Dhabi can feel very much like home, it pays to do your research on the law and your rights.

Attitudes towards women in the United Arab Emirates

The UAE ranks first in the world for treating women with respect. Street harassment is virtually non-existent, and many expats express feeling much safer there than in their own country. Whether you’re walking down the street at 3am or taking a late-night taxi, you might get a few strange looks, but the likelihood of anyone speaking to you – or worse – is incredibly low. You will often hear a narrative of women being ‘protected’ or ‘elevated’, as a form of respect in the Emirates.

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Laws and harmful practices in the United Arab Emirates

Legal duality

Keep in mind that, within the UAE, legal requirements exist alongside respect for Islamic law. So, for example, the law states that the age of consent for marriage is 18, however in the Quran, the age of consent for marriage is puberty. Therefore, legally, children under 18 can get married with the approval of a judge. This, coupled with the unspoken nature of child or forced marriages, makes it hard to determine how widespread such practices are.

Women's rights in the United Arab Emirates (1)

Women over the age of 18 must still get approval from their guardian to marry or travel abroad. In fact, a husband can legally withhold his wife’s passport to stop her from traveling.

Female genital mutilation

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is banned in state hospitals and clinics in the UAE; however, there are still some private clinics and rural areas where this happens. There are no numbers on how widespread FGM is, however, a 2011 study found that 34% of participants had undergone some form of FGM.

Women’s political rights in the United Arab Emirates

Voting rights for women in the United Arab Emirates

The UAE is not a democracy, therefore Emiratis do not choose heads of state. Starting in 2006, however, the government began to allow men and women to vote or stand in the Federal National Council (FNC). In the years since, more people have been granted the right to vote and, in 2015, nearly a quarter of a million people took to the ballots. Interestingly, nearly half of the voters were women.

Women in power in the United Arab Emirates

Half of the FNC’s 40 seats are elected by voters while half are appointed by representatives of the various Emirates. In the most recent 2015 elections, 330 candidates ran for office, 20% of whom were women. One woman won and eight others were appointed, bringing the overall percentage of women in the FNC to 20%. For the upcoming 2019 election, the President announced that fully half of the FNC members must be women.

Economic rights of women in the United Arab Emirates

Employment rights

Legally, women in the UAE receive equal pay for equal work. They can freely work in jobs of their choosing, including in the government – but only if they have the consent of their guardian, which is usually their father. In fact, two-thirds of public sector jobs are held by women and women make up approximately 40% of the general workforce.

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Pregnant women are guaranteed paid maternity leave, although how long the leave is and whether it’s full or half pay depends on the workplace. There is no official paternal leave.

Women in business

Women in the UAE can freely open businesses and there has been an eagerness to support them in recent years. More and more female-led entrepreneur groups, such as Womena, are driving the conversation about women entrepreneurs in the Emirates. Currently, women-business owners form 10% of the UAE’s private sector and hold 15% of the seats in the boards of chambers of commerce and industry throughout the country.

Financial and property rights

Emirati women are free to purchase property and acquire a mortgage. In fact, a recent study found that 30% of the property in Dubai is owned by women. However, it is important for women to make a will, as Islamic law dictates that inheritance amounts vary depending on the gender of the heir; the percentages are higher for male heirs. So, unless you would like your assets to be similarly distributed, make your wishes known in writing.

Women’s health and reproductive rights in the UAE

Healthcare for women in the UAE is widely accessible. There are plenty of specialized and general hospitals and women can access almost any kind of treatment. In fact, the maternal mortality rate in the UAE – 6 deaths per 100,000 births – is about the same as that of the United States. Abortion is illegal and criminalized, except in very specific instances that are difficult to prove.

Generally speaking, Emirati women are living longer than ever before – however, their lives aren’t always the healthiest. Many Emirati women have high rates of Vitamin D deficiency and obesity, leading to reproductive and other general health complications.

Read our guide to having a baby in the UAE

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Educational rights of women in the United Arab Emirates

The UAE is a highly literate country, with literacy rates for men and women at around 95%.

Women's rights in the United Arab Emirates (2)

Women can access all levels of education, including primary school and secondary school. In fact, 77% of Emirati women enroll in higher education after secondary school. Women make up 70% of all university graduates.

Women’s freedom from violence in the United Arab Emirates

The UAE has ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and continues to declare gender equality a top priority. That said, many of the government’s policies do not live up to those ideals.

Read our guide to the education system in the UAE

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Rape and domestic violence

Domestic violence is legal in the UAE because Islam allows a husband to chastise or discipline his wife and minor children. Sadly, when women go to the police to report violence the police don’t always take claims seriously, because they are considered a private domestic matter. Wives are obligated to obey their husbands. Rape victims seeking support can be, and have been, charged with illicit sex – which is illegal and criminalized in the UAE. In this respect, women’s rights in the United Arab Emirates fall short of other cultures around the world.

Please keep in mind that even though Emirati law is inspired by Islamic law, it applies to everyone in the country. So, for example, cases of custody and divorce disputes are handled within this context of imbalanced rights. There have also been upsetting instances where women have accused their husbands of assault and the husbands have countered with accusations of slander or profanity – and both parties have been punished. As an expat, be sure to know your rights and, unfortunately, to have an exit strategy in the back of your mind.

Family and divorce laws in the United Arab Emirates

Marriage, family, and divorce laws in the UAE can seem contradictory and confusing. There are some significant imbalances to note in the Emirates. Men, as per Islam, can marry up to four wives if they can support them all equally. Men can also unilaterally and immediately divorce their wives; wives must apply for a court order, which is granted under very narrow grounds.

Women who work without their husband’s consent can be considered to be misbehaving. For expats with children, custody matters are very important to bear in mind. Legally, a wife only has custody until her children are 13 (for girls) and 11 (for boys); if a husband and wife divorce, expat or local, a husband can insist on full custody after those ages.

Although figures on forced marriages do not exist, families commonly arrange marriages in the UAE. In addition, a woman’s male guardian must approve of a marriage before it can take place.

Breastfeeding laws in the United Arab Emirates

Breastfeeding is mandatory for the first 18 months of a child’s life and the UAE is encouraging the practice widely.

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Returning mothers can take two nursing breaks throughout the day; importantly, most malls and public spaces provide feeding rooms or private areas to nurse.

Feminism in the United Arab Emirates

Although the UAE remains a highly patriarchal country, women’s empowerment is a popular idea. The government continues to point out female success stories and the important role of women in the nation-building process. Emirati women are defining and redefining their ideas and relationship towards feminism.

Women’s rights organizations in the United Arab Emirates

There are no independent organizations with a focus on women’s rights within the UAE. The Dubai Foundation for Women and Children is a government-run shelter which protects victims of domestic abuse and offers safe homes and rehabilitative services.

FAQs

What are women's rights in United Arab Emirates? ›

Women have the same constitutional rights as men but remain completely unprotected in key areas. Women can vote, drive, own property, work, and get an education – however, some of these require approval from their guardian.

Does UAE have gender inequality? ›

UNDP 2020 Gender Inequality Index

The UAE was ranked 18th globally and 1st regionally in the Gender Inequality Index (GII) of the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Report 2020. It has advanced eight positions from its previous rank of 26 in 2019.

Who is the richest girl in Dubai? ›

Huda Kattan. Miserable in her finance job, Huda Kattan quit to become a makeup artist and then launched a blog in 2010. Kattan started Huda Beauty with her two sisters in 2013 when she couldn't find false eyelashes to buy.

What is the female dress code in Dubai? ›

Women can wear shirts, tops, t-shirts, skirts, shorts, trousers, jeans, and dresses in Dubai. Women can wear swimsuits and bikinis on the beaches. They can also wear the traditional dress of their country or culture, such as saree or salwar kameez, as long as it is modest.

Can females work in Dubai? ›

Can women work in Dubai? A common misconception that people often have is that women can't work in Dubai. In fact, the opposite is true; women can work in Dubai and many who do would claim the opportunities are better than many places in the West.

Can you drink in Dubai? ›

UAE Residents can drink alcohol at home and in licensed venues. Liquor licences are still required for Residents in Dubai but are no longer required for Residents in Abu Dhabi and other Emirates (save for Emirate of Sharjah) to purchase alcohol for personal consumption.

Is Dubai safe? ›

Dubai is, in fact, one of the safest Middle Eastern cities for tourists. Its stricter laws mean that crime is kept to a minimum, and many tourists feel much safer in Dubai than they do in other parts of the globe. The crime rate in Dubai is much lower than comparable countries in other regions in the world.

Why is Dubai is so rich? ›

Free trade, a low tax rate, and zero income tax have made Dubai a popular business hub and a wealthy state. Dubai is also the gateway to the East and boasts of the world's highest international passenger flow. It is a world-renowned destination for all travelers, including the rich and famous.

Can girls wear shorts in Dubai? ›

Yes, women can wear shorts in Dubai as long as they are not too short. You can wear them at beaches or malls but you should avoid them at local markets and souks. It is mandatory in the water parks to wear any kind of swimwear. If the shorts fulfill the criteria of swimwear, it should not be a problem at all.

Do I need to wear a hijab in Dubai? ›

There's no law requiring you to cover your hair with a scarf (unless you're entering a mosque). Men should be wary of shorts – knee-length is considered modestly acceptable.

Can you show your legs in Dubai? ›

For women, it's a good idea not to show cleavage or thighs, although sandals are fine. The dress code is generally looser at nightclubs or bars. Malls have signs instructing customers to cover their shoulders and knees.

What is life like for a woman in Dubai? ›

In Dubai, women are largely safe. According to a Georgetown University study in 2021, the UAE holds the greatest percentage of women who feel safe in their communities worldwide. 98.5 percent reported they felt safe. That is the highest percentage worldwide.

Are tattoos allowed in Dubai? ›

While many believe it is illegal to get a tattoo in the UAE, there is no law prohibiting it. However, tattoos are deemed a form of self-injury, something which is forbidden in Islamic culture. Do you have any visible tattoos on your body? It is illegal to get a tattoo by an unlicensed artist due to the health risk.

Can I live with my boyfriend in Dubai? ›

Men and women in the UAE can now live together without any repercussions. Until now, it was illegal for unmarried couples, or even unrelated flatmates, to share a home in the Emirates. However, over the recent years, the authorities have rarely targeted or prosecuted anyone violating the rule.

Can a woman live alone in Dubai? ›

Absolutely! There are thousands of women living alone in Dubai, and it is interesting, most of them are living in their own bought properties. We have interacted with solo women residents in Dubai, and surprisingly, almost 90% of women confessed that they feel incredibly safe living alone in this busy city.

Can females work in Dubai? ›

Can women work in Dubai? A common misconception that people often have is that women can't work in Dubai. In fact, the opposite is true; women can work in Dubai and many who do would claim the opportunities are better than many places in the West.

Can Emirati woman marry a foreigner? ›

An Emirati woman who is married to a foreign national will become the permanent sponsor of her husband. The Emirati woman who will marry a foreign national must have written consent of being the permanent sponsor of the husband and any children they will have.

Are unmarried couples allowed in Dubai? ›

Sexual relationships or unmarried couples cohabiting is illegal in Dubai. Cohabiting, including in hotels, is also illegal, however most hotels in Dubai do not enforce an 'only married couples' rule. The luxury hotels which mostly cater to foreigners are especially relaxed.

Is dating allowed in Dubai? ›

To put it simply, yes, dating in Dubai is permissible and legal, thanks to the new Dubai laws. While this is the status quo, there are a couple of things you'd want to bear in mind in order to not get penalized. As an example, it would be best to be discreet with public displays of affection or when dating publicly.

What is life like for a woman in Dubai? ›

In Dubai, women are largely safe. According to a Georgetown University study in 2021, the UAE holds the greatest percentage of women who feel safe in their communities worldwide. 98.5 percent reported they felt safe. That is the highest percentage worldwide.

Can I share a room with my boyfriend in Dubai? ›

Although according to the Islamic Shariah law it is illegal for unmarried couples to share a room at a hotel, the UAE has gone through a transformative relaxation of regulations in 2020 in an effort to improve its global image. Therefore, it is absolutely legal for an unmarried couple to share a room in Dubai.

Is Dubai good for girls? ›

The UAE has recently been ranked as one of safest countries in the world, as per a report by Numbeo, while Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah have featured among the top ten cities with the lowest crime rates. For women looking to live and work in a safe, family-friendly destination, Dubai is an excellent choice.

Do tourists have to wear hijab in Dubai? ›

There's no law requiring you to cover your hair with a scarf (unless you're entering a mosque). Men should be wary of shorts – knee-length is considered modestly acceptable.

Are tattoos allowed in Dubai? ›

While many believe it is illegal to get a tattoo in the UAE, there is no law prohibiting it. However, tattoos are deemed a form of self-injury, something which is forbidden in Islamic culture. Do you have any visible tattoos on your body? It is illegal to get a tattoo by an unlicensed artist due to the health risk.

How many wives can a man have in Dubai? ›

Such a query is often concerning Muslims, as pursuant to the Islamic Sharia laws, a Muslim male may have as many as four wives. Thereby, polygamy is practiced in the UAE.

Can Muslims date non Muslims? ›

Ali said the Koran is clear that Muslim men are allowed to marry non-Muslim women as long as their brides are “People of the Book” — Christians or Jews, both of whom recognize Abraham as their spiritual forefather, as Muslims do. A Muslim woman, however, cannot marry a non-Muslim man unless he converts.

What happens if you marry an Emirati? ›

Marriage. A foreign woman married to an Emirati national may acquire citizenship provided that the marriage lasts for at least seven years with the condition of having at least one child, or ten years in the absence of children. The wife of a naturalized male citizen may also acquire Emirati citizenship.

Can I wear shorts in Dubai? ›

You can dress as casually as you want, as long as it's appropriate. You can wear shorts in Dubai. Even skirts, if they are at knee length and not shorter than that.

Can a boy and girl live together in Dubai? ›

Men and women in the UAE can now live together without any repercussions. Until now, it was illegal for unmarried couples, or even unrelated flatmates, to share a home in the Emirates. However, over the recent years, the authorities have rarely targeted or prosecuted anyone violating the rule.

Can you hug in Dubai? ›

Public Conduct

Public displays of affection are not well-tolerated in Dubai. Holding hands is fine for married couples, but kissing or hugging in public are not acceptable. Keep in mind that if you're stopped by the police because you're holding hands and you're not married, you might run into trouble.

Videos

1. What Happened to Princess Latifa? - Women’s Rights in the United Arab Emirates (UAE)
(CsunStudentLife)
2. Radha Stirling on BBC Woman's Hour: Women's Rights in the UAE and Princess Latifa of Dubai
(Detained in Dubai)
3. The Darkside Of Dubai - What They Don't Tell You
(The Interesting Flow)
4. Understanding Emirati Culture: Women’s Clothing
(Khaleej Times)
5. UAE: Domestic Workers Trapped, Exploited and Abused
(Human Rights Watch)
6. Five things Saudi women still can't do - BBC News
(BBC News)

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