All Abu Dhabi residents know that it is not like anywhere else on earth. And many of us have been asked by people in our home countries, ‘What’s it like to live there?’ For me, this is often accompanied by questions such as, ‘Can you go anywhere you like?’ and the ever popular, ‘Do you have to wear a-’ accompanied by rapid hand movements as they struggle to find the right word for a hijab. Many times I am tempted to answer, ‘Wear a what? Motorcycle helmet? Beekeeping hat?’ but mostly I smile politely and shake my head, explaining that it’s not like what they’ve seen on television.

What they’ve seen on television is a lot of post-9/11 imagery of women wearing burkas in Afghanistan, or they’ve seen movies like Sex and the City 2, and Lawrence of Arabia. Not to mention any number of the war movies set vaguely in the Middle East, such as Jarhead and Black Hawk Down, none of which would be complete without an extended sequence of women and children running from men who are  hanging out of Jeeps and waving machetes and AK-47s.

But above and beyond those images, no one could fathom why I, a feminist since the age of four, would fly halfway around the world to go to college in a country where female citizens can’t pass on citizenship to their children. Where a marriage license must be presented at some hotels when a male and female guest check-in. Where men outnumber women at least two to one—the highest gender imbalance in the world, according to the CIA World Factbook. Where as a white, single, educated woman, I would be in the minority.

These facts may suggest a restrictive environment for women. To complicate this picture, however, let me offer a number of other facts that outline a society with more progressive gender roles.

Emirati women enjoy more than double the international average of female representation in elected government. In 2007, the number of UAE national women enrolled in higher education was 24% higher than men; 77% of UAE females pursue education beyond high school; and women account for 59% of the national UAE labour force. The UAE also ranks 39th in the world for gender-empowerment. By these indicators, female UAE nationals seem to be doing better than many Western women, and certainly above the average indicators for women around the world.

But to take the statistics of Emirati women as representative for all who live in the country would be to ignore the crucial fact that less than less than 20% of the total population of approximately 6 million are UAE citizens, and only 10% of those who live in the UAE are Emirati women.

So what about the other women in the UAE, those who are not nationals? Here, in the absence of similar statistics, I venture into the dangerous but nonetheless illuminating field of anecdotes.

Ever tried walking down Electra Street on a Thursday night? An eight-lane thoroughfare through the centre of downtown Abu Dhabi, it heaves with traffic and crowds navigating the bizarrely multi-level footpaths. If you are a woman, when you suddenly realise that you are the only woman in sight, the thought can be unnerving. I attended an all-girls high school, and when a boy walked through the halls, we stared and whispered because we were so unused to seeing his kind of human. In high school, however, we never sat down in the corridors and watched as the boy walked past. There is a phenomenon in Abu Dhabi of men sitting on the footpaths and watching people who walk by. Their eyes seem to zero in on women, and the smile that comes with the stare can be unsettling. I know the stares are out of curiosity, and that the street is one of the main places for social interaction here. Still, when out walking, I have often asked my male friends walk around me where these crowds of men are particularly thick, to form a physical barrier between myself and the nagging stares.

When I put the question ‘What is it like to be a woman in the UAE?’ before my classmates, I received varying responses. Most women felt generally safe in the UAE, even at night. Many commented on the stares. As one classmate put it, ‘It just wears on you’. Several others pointed out that reception seems to be based on ethnicity. White students felt they could get away with wearing less conservative clothing and have be written off as being ‘dumb Americans’ who hadn’t researched their host country rather than be seen as provocative or immoral. For one classmate, a Muslim female who has lived in the UAE her whole life, donning her hijab meant that Muslim men would try to regulate her behaviour and ‘protect’ her, which she experiences as an invasion of privacy. When she made the decision to not wear her hijab anymore, she noticed a distinct difference in the way she was treated: Arab men ceased trying to play the role of her ‘brother.’ One comment she made that resonated among all of us is that in the UAE, people ‘are always trying to figure out where everyone’s from so as to determine how to treat them.’ Her comment suggests that the way different genders experience life in the UAE is further complicated and divided by nationality and ethnicity.

A particular area of concern for female students is athletics, which many of us participate in on a regular basis. NYU Abu Dhabi has an agreement with a nearby primary school whose facilities we use for swimming, soccer, and other sports. The walk from our residence to the primary school takes just five minutes and walking there is the one exception many students make to their efforts to dress modestly. Most girls play soccer in athletic shorts – it’s easier, especially when temperatures however at 40 degrees Celsius and the humidity borders on unbearable. As one student said, ‘People will stare and objectify no matter what I am wearing – I do not wear shorts because I like being stared at, I do it because it’s practical.’

A sophomore at NYU Abu Dhabi, I have now been back in the city for a month, after spending my summer break at home in Australia. It is good to be back here, in my ‘other’ home, but it is not without its complications. The staring is constant, but I am learning to accept it as a matter of being the ethnicity I am in the place I am.

I struggle, every day, to work out what all of these experiences mean for my conduct in the UAE, whether that will change over time–when and if the gender gap in population balances out–or whether it will always be a fact of life living here. Embedded in this struggle is thinking about what it means to be in the minority, to think each day about what to wear and how to strike the balance between clothing that will be conservative but not result in heatstroke.  And today, I’m going to the beach–and I’ll be wearing a one-piece bathing suit.

I could never make the claim that my experiences in the UAE, nor those of the classmates I have interviewed, represent the experiences of all women.  I can say, however, is that while gender clearly acts as a divider here, it is not the only divisive factor. Ethnicity and race are just also markers of difference, perhaps even more so. And because skin colour is no guarantee of ethnicity, questions of ethnicity add further complications to snap judgements being made solely on external factors.

So when I am asked ‘What’s it like to be a woman living in the Middle East?,’ as I often am in Australia, I can answer that it’s not only my gender that determines how I am treated, but the colour of my skin. In Australia, my gender means that I am sometimes honked at waiting for the bus, whistled when I’m walking down the street, and that occasionally I am trapped in awkward conversations with the creepy man on the bus because I feel physically intimidated by him. In Australia, then, it’s solely gender that attracts notice—attention that is not necessarily positive. In Abu Dhabi, however, my whiteness compounded with my gender means I am an oddity, a curio, someone who gets treated with respect and confusion simultaneously.

What seems important about living here, in Abu Dhabi, is that we acknowledge that men and women have different experiences of public space, and that we find ways to talk about those different experiences as openly as possible. In that vein, then this article is dedicated to those who responded to my questions and allowed me to discuss their experiences. I hope that we continue to talk and that, perhaps, we can continue this conversation in the comments section, below.

image by Diana Gluck