The United Arab Emirates (UAE) stands out as the highest ranking country in the Middle East and North Africa region across a number of metrics related to women’s achievements, alongside major constraints. The government’s commitment to women’s education and participation in public life helps propel the country to a rank far above its neighbors’, at 42nd place overall on the WPS Index (tied with Ecuador). In education, the country per- forms well regionally and globally, averaging just about nine years of schooling for women. Female students outperform their male counterparts in test scores and graduation rates at the secondary and tertiary education levels, leading to worries that men are falling behind on this front (Ridge 2009). The UAE is close to the global average in women’s representation in parliament, and women account for almost a third of the cabinet, almost double the global mean, although this is largely through the UAE’s system of direct appointments rather than popular elections (Dajani 2016).
An estimated 47 percent of UAE women are in the labor force, the second-highest rate in the region after Qatar, with the country’s large public health and education sectors being the major employers (El-Swais 2016). Poor working conditions for domestic workers, however, affect many of the estimated 150,000 women migrants working in UAE, who are excluded from federal labor law protections (Human Rights Watch 2014). Women remain underrepresented in the formal private and corporate sectors. Although the UAE government mandated that companies include women on their boards in 2012, data for 2015 show that only 1 percent of board directors are women (Lee et al. 2015).
UAE’s achievements are constrained by its retention of many discriminatory laws, resulting in a rank close to the bottom on the justice dimension of the WPS Index. While there are some legal protections for women, including constitutionally mandated equal pay for equal work, the Sharia-based Law of Personal Affairs, which covers marriage, divorce, and succession, is restrictive and discriminatory, with clauses that require a male guardian to approve a woman’s marriage and that give men a unilateral right to divorce (Ministry of State for Federal National Council Affairs 2009; Begum 2015). Protection measures for victims of sexual assault are weak, and there is no comprehensive law against domestic violence (Salem 2015).