ABU DHABI // The number of Emirati women marrying foreigners is on the rise as more women pursue careers that mean greater exposure to foreigners, and many leave their wedding vows until they are older, experts say.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics, 737 Emirati women married foreigners in 2010, compared with 643 in 2009 – an increase of almost 15 per cent.
Experts attributed the trend to factors including changing lifestyles and pressure for women to marry as they get older. Wedad Lootah, an Emirati marriage counsellor with the family guidance section at the Dubai courts, said that progressing lifestyles for women had changed what they looked for in a marriage
Exposure to different nationalities through work or education also provides them with a wider scope of relationship opportunities, she said.
“Today, many educated Emirati women get married by conviction,” she said.
“After she has fulfilled her career and academic dreams, she may find another person of the same calibre and marry him, regardless of nationality.”
Age also played an important factor, Ms Lootah said, as women often felt pressured to tie the knot as they grew older. “Many of these women who pursue their aspirations end up getting older without a partner,” she said. “These women who find themselves aged 35 or above, not married, and cannot find an Emirati man or a man from the GCC, feel they must resort to finding another man to marry.”
An additional contributing factor, Ms Lootah said, was that many of these women already came from mixed families and married from within their families.
However, while the number of Emirati women marrying foreign men is on the rise, certain policies that affect only women are still intact. The most prominent include the marriage fund, which is provided only to Emirati men, and citizenship rights, which prevent women from passing citizenship to their husband or children.
Dr May al Dabbagh, the director of the gender and public policy programme at the Dubai School of Government, attributed this resistance to social attitudes that perceived women as vulnerable individuals.
“The reasons for this are not religious, since technically, discriminating against a man due to his nationality is clearly not Islamic, nor are they based on scientific findings which show that women are more vulnerable if they are married to non-nationals,” she said.
“Indeed, the reason that women are not treated equally to men in terms of passing on their nationality is because they are viewed as incapable of making decisions effectively, and in need of protection so as not to be taken advantage of by others.”
Despite significant advances in professional and educational achievement by women, which in many cases exceeded those of men, these attitudes had not changed, Dr al Dabbagh said.
“We must change [this] so that the mother can pass the citizenship to children because they need to benefit from free education, medical services and other privileges that the UAE citizenship may offer,” Ms Lootah said.
Other countries in the region, such as Egypt and Tunisia, had reversed such policies, said Dr al Dabbagh, adding that most GCC countries are also looking at revising these discriminatory laws. In Saudi Arabia, for example, a woman can technically apply for her child to receive citizenship, but only if the child is a male and has lived in the country.
“Women’s groups across the GCC view these as compromises at best, and a far cry from enabling them to practise their rights as full-fledged citizens,” Dr al Dabbagh said.
However, experts emphasised that these were small steps on a long road for establishing equal rights for women.
One example, Dr al Dabbagh said, was that female members of the FNC were now allowed to pass on their diplomatic privileges to their husbands and children. Another, according to former FNC member Rowaya Saif al Samahi, was the Sheikh Zayed Housing Programme, which offers mortgages to Emiratis and was once available only to men. But since 2009, the programme has been offered to women, including those who marry foreigners.
Male Emiratis also acknowledge this trend towards equality, and for the most part are supportive of modifying women’s citizenship rights.
However, Mishaal al Gergawi, an Emirati current affairs commentator, said the issue of citizenship was not black and white.
“There should be a committee created that looks at this issue on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “I don’t know if a blanket solution is the best approach.”
For Omar al Merrie, a strategic planner with the Abu Dhabi Police, a scene from a film comes to mind.
“There was a lady in the movie who said ‘many times, men wed foreigners and their children get lost and have nothing to do with the Emirati community, but receive citizenship anyway. While us women, we raise and nurture these kids, we embed them into our family and culture and we can’t pass our citizenship’,” he said. “It really gave me something to think about.”