My 5 Favorite Things about Being a Woman in the United Arab Emirates

Me at the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi
Visiting the Grand Mosque - I covered up at the mosque, but in my day-to-day life I could wear normal Western clothes.

When I tell people about the two years that I spent living and working in the Middle East, there are usually plenty of questions that follow – but one in particular seems to come up most often: “Was it difficult being a woman there?”

Really, there were lots of questions that centered on the assumption that as a woman, I would be treated differently and severely restricted in my day to day activities.

However, I’m happy to say that that wasn’t the case – there were plenty of differences in lifestyle, but any ‘problems’ with being a woman usually weren’t even on my radar.

The usual stereotypes – not being able to drive, having to cover up completely, and needing an escort to go outside – were absolutely NOT true in the United Arab Emirates. My day to day life wasn’t that different to my life at home, in many ways. And in fact, sometimes being a woman made my life a lot easier.

But before I continue, I should probably give you a quick disclaimer… a couple of important clarifications.

First, let me mention that my own personal experiences are applicable ONLY to the UAE, in the larger cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Countries and cultures in the Middle East are highly variable – a lot more so than most Westerners realize… Had I been living in a very restricted country like Saudi Arabia, I’m sure I would have had a very different experience…

Also, this is really most applicable to Western women. While some Muslim women have a great deal of freedom and professional success, there are some more conservative families in which the women don’t have much freedom. And, unfortunately, some women from certain other countries – who hold positions such as maids – are not likely to have the same experience I had.

However, I can only report on my own personal experience as a Western, female expat – so that’s what I’ll do now…

So, without further ado, here are my 5 favorite things about being a woman in the UAE:

1) Special seats on the buses and trams

The buses in Abu Dhabi, as well as the buses, monorail, and trams in Dubai, have different seating options available for males and females.

The good news for women is this – that women can sit anywhere they want to, including a women-only car and anywhere else in the general seating area, while men have limited options.

And while women can sit anywhere they want, and are not required to sit in the women’s section – I personally preferred the women’s section.

That was especially true when the public transportation was crowded, like during rush hour. Rather than having to cram into a crowded car, possibly being squashed up a little too close to men that I don’t know, I could go to the more spacious women’s car.

Sometimes the women’s section gets crowded, too – but for the most part, it stays less crowded.

This was especially true for the buses, too. Once, when taking the bus from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, I was worried because there was a super long line starting to form. It was hot outside (like 115 degrees), and I thought I might not get a seat on this bus, and would have to wait for the next one…

However, after the first section of the line of people boarded the bus, the general seating area was full, but there were still a few women’s seats left (there were far fewer women than men in the line).

Rather than allowing any men to sit there, the bus driver called for women to come take those seats… Women who were waaaaaaaaay back toward the end of the line were able to jump up front and claim those spots.

It really wasn’t fair to the men who were in line earlier and had to wait outside in the sun for the next bus… but in this case, it was good to be a woman!

And just to note – young boys can ride in the women’s section with their mothers – so there’s no need for women to move to general seating just because they’re traveling with male children.


2) Respect for privacy and honor

OK, so it’s not perfect in this regard… there are loads of construction workers who are creepy and stare women down at any opportunity they get…

However, the laws for bothering women are a lot stricter in the UAE than they are in the US.

For example, if I caught a man taking a picture of me without my permission – I could report him to the police.

Technically, a man is also not allowed to stare at a woman out in public or to say anything suggestive to her… granted this is much more difficult to regulate, but I still appreciate the sentiment.

And if a man were ever to try to touch me (something that apparently happens to women in the US all too often…), that would definitely be grounds for reporting them to the police – and those sorts of offenses are taken seriously.

Sometimes it swings too far in the other extreme – for example, if a woman is in danger (such as getting her dress caught in the escalator track) or has had a fall, a man has to think twice about jumping in to help her (if it will involve touching her, he could potentially get in trouble for that). However, I still appreciate the basic respect for women that is the underlying principle behind these rules.


3) Family sections at restaurants

Restaurants are another area where there are often divided seating areas.

There’s a general seating area – groups of men are only allowed to sit here. Women, on the other hand, are allowed to sit anywhere they want – either in the general seating area, or in the family section.

To go to the family seating area, there has to be at least one woman in the group – the men in the group can join her (hence the name ‘family’ area rather than ‘women’s’ area).

A few restaurants have phenomenal family seating options. My favorite was at an Indian restaurant.

At this restaurant, my group and I were given an individual booth with ultimate privacy -  there were high walls around the booth (and they were pretty, wooden walls with carved elephants and symbols), with a door that closed!

It was like our own private little room. If we needed something, we had a button to call the waiter. And when the waiter arrived for any reason, they always knocked on the door before opening it.

It was cozy, almost like having the restaurant to ourselves – and it was an option that was only available to women. Men-only groups need not apply…


4) Women-only facilities

Plenty of places had separate facilities for men and women. This included spas, medical clinics, waiting areas for government offices… even beaches!

At one point during the years I worked there, I started going to a Thai spa for massages.

The ladies there gave excellent massages! The atmosphere was peaceful. And only women were allowed.

A few times, I was talking about massage places with my male colleagues. They would ask for the place I spoke so highly about… and I had to tell them that my place wasn’t available to them…

And really, I became a lot more comfortable having a women’s only spa. Especially for massages, or for other services like Moroccan baths where we would be able to hang out in bathrobes while we waited, reading a magazine and sipping Thai tea.

In fact, I had gotten so used to it, that I started to be surprised if I ever went for a massage in another country.

During a trip to India, I had a layover in Mumbai, and decided to get a foot massage while I waited (I had just done a lot of walking!). When I saw a man come in and sit across from me, my immediate thought was to be startled and think, “What’s he doing in here?!” I had to remind myself that mixed spas were the norm for so many other countries around the world.

And there’s another big benefit to these divided facilities – shorter waiting times!

When I went for official business – such as the medical exam for my work visa, or to get my driver’s license – there was always a special line and waiting area for women.

And in general, the women’s section was small, and the wait was much shorter…

I’d get there, check in and get a number, get called for my appointment, and leave with my documents – all before some of the men who had arrived there before me even got called back for their appointments!


5) The modest clothing

I know, I know… having to cover up can be considered restrictive of women’s freedom…

But hear me out for a minute!

I was skeptical at first, too… and I still don’t believe that women should be required to cover up if they don’t want to…

And fortunately, I wasn’t required to wear any head covering. However, it was strongly encouraged to cover up: shoulders, legs down to the knees, mid-section, and cleavage.

And after a time, I came to realize – these are good general guidelines for daily wear, no matter where in the world I am.

Sure, I’ll sometimes wear sundresses or other things that don’t cover me to the same extent…

But my point is, too often in the Western world, we judge women on their physical appearance. There’s some sort of expectation, especially among younger women, that we should spend a lot of time on our bodies, and then wear the type of clothing that shows off our figures… and even business clothing often caters to that expectation.

However, isn’t that just as degrading to women?

I, for one, don’t want to have my self-esteem or the impression I make upon others be so dependent on having a perfect figure.

Don’t get me wrong – I believe in being healthy. However, there’s a point where having a ‘nice figure’ is less about being healthy, and more about superficiality.

There are only 24 hours in a day… how many of them do I want to spend working on achieving some standard of beauty that’s not even completely realistic to me?

As such, I’ve come to be in favor of looser fitting clothing, and I don’t like to show too much skin all the time.

Quite frankly, some of the more modest clothing styles are more comfortable, too, especially if you live in a hot climate – I realized that having a layer of clothing to protect my skin often kept me cooler than I would have been in shorts and a tank top.

And, there’s more good news… modest fashion doesn’t have to be boring or unfeminine. It's even starting to become more accepted in the world of high fashion.

So while life as a woman may be a little different in the UAE... I've come to a better understanding and appreciation of the cultural differences. And really, that's one of the best reasons to travel and experience new places. It helps you to examine your own assumptions and see things in a different light - and the world starts to feel a bit smaller, with less judgment of other cultures, and more appreciation of the differences.