THE United Arab Emirates have one of the fastest growing economies in the Middle East, and also have one of the most open societies in the Persian Gulf. Women are afforded many freedoms and are encouraged to work and take part in public life. But ultimately this is a traditional society for local women, where marriage and family are still central in a woman’s life, where the law favors men in issues of family and where many women opt for reliable government jobs or simply choose to stay at home.
But with the outside world crashing into Emirati homes, and divorce rates on the rise, women must be better prepared to take care of themselves than their mothers’ generation, Sheika Lubna and other women here argue.
As a woman who challenged all the societal rules in the 1970s, working her way up the ranks as a computer engineer, then a chief executive and a government minister, she has sought to prove to women here that they, too, must begin assuming a greater role in public life.
Her family is the ruling family of the emirate of Sharjah, the emirate neighboring Dubai; her uncle is the ruler. As royalty, she faced even more traditional demands than most. Moreover, she never really needed to work, and if she chose to, she could have opted for a low-key job in a ceremonial role or as a bureaucrat.
She chose the hard way, however. When other women were staying home in the late 1970s, Sheika Lubna left for California to study computer engineering, becoming one of the first Emirati women to travel abroad for study.
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After decades of pushing the barriers in a region where women have traditionally been kept out of the public sphere, Sheika Lubna now towers as one of the country’s most influential women. She is the first woman here to be a minister, but no less important, she is the minister of economy and planning, a particularly important position in a nation that is a major oil producer and relies so heavily on foreign investment, and where the economy continues to boom.
On any given day, she may be shuttling between world capitals to sign trade agreements, or between cities in the Emirates to garner support for her policies, or to lend support for a cause. She has pushed for the deregulation of cross-border trade while answering calls for greater oversight over the investment sector and stumping for foreign investment in her country.
But throughout, she has remained conscious of her role in chipping away at the restrictions women face in this region.