Women in Abu Dhabi walk in abayasAdmittedly, I am not a Sex And The City fan. Like many people, I’ve seen my share of episodes; like many women, I watched some of those with friends. But between the obsession with Cosmos and their utter ignorance of DSW — let alone the broadly-drawn caricatures of the “types” of women and the ever-present voiceover (which is the hallmark of poorly plotted fiction) — I didn’t mourn its end nor follow its fans to theatres in its first iteration. However, reports of the casual anti-Muslim bias of the second film (denied by its writer-director) almost made me consider going, just so I could more specifically address the biases inherent in the film. But that costs $10, so I figured, for free on the Internet, I could learn some things about the role of women in the UAE that were more accurate and more interesting. And I did!

1. Women in the UAE are often more educated than men
In 2005, women had a slightly higher literacy rate than men (91 to 89 percent). In 2007, women made up 48.5 percent of primary school enrollment, 48.8 percent of secondary school enrollment (and were slightly more likely to be enrolled in secondary school than men) and 60.2 percent of enrollments at post-secondary educational institutions. In fact, women were more than twice as likely as men to received post-secondary education, something the UAE government attributes to men’s satisfaction with the labor market access they receive from a post-secondary education and a desire among men to serve in the military and police forces at an early age

2. Women use birth control
Although official government statistics indicate that in 1995 only about one-quarter of people regularly used modern contraceptive methods, the relatively low fertility rate in 2010 of 2.41 children per woman (which puts them square in the middle range of fertility rates) strongly indicates that women have access to birth control and are using that access.

3. Teenage Americans are more likely to get pregnant than teenage Emiratis
Despite imperfect statistics that show that (in 1995) about 8 percent of teenage Emirati women were married compared to just under 6 percent of teenage American women (in 2000), the adolescent fertility rate in the UAE between 2005 and 2010 was 16 percent, compared to 36 percent in the United States.

4. Emirati women don’t all wear the niqab
Although various reviewers described the Emirati women in SATC2 as being fully veiled, pictures like the one above (taken in Abu Dhabi), in which the women are wearing abayas, as well as pictures on UAE government sites and elsewhere on Flickr show that Emirati sport everything from abayas to hijabs to niqabs. It would seem to be quite an unusual vacation in the UAE in which one exclusively encountered women in niqabs.

5. Women are increasingly penetrating the corridors of power in the UAE
Although the UAE recognizes that it has a ways to go before women are fully integrated in the labor market, women are nonetheless making strides in positions of power. Women hold 23 percent of the UAE’s Parliamentary seats (women occupy only 17 percent of the House seats in the U.S.). In a recent speech, the UAE’s ambassador to the United States told his audience that women make up 60 percent of the government work force; they hold 4 seats in the Cabinet; and they just swore in their first female judge. In 2010, Dubai opened up the first class for female muftis (scholars who interpret and issue rulings on Muslim law), which is the first such class in the Middle East.

Does the UAE have a ways to go when it comes to women’s rights? Certainly. Human Rights Watch has documented its poor record on justice for foreign workers, and, in particular, for female foreign workers, as well as its tendency to use rape laws to police consensual behavior rather than hold rapists accountable for their assaults. Women don’t participate in the work force in anything resembling parity with their educational levels. But it’s not a country where women are explicitly forced behind niqabs and prevented from getting an education, and, by portraying it that way, the SATC2 creators have done a disservice both to the women of the UAE and to the women of the world for whom abayas, hijabs, niqabs or burqas are mandatory and education is something they can really only get behind closed doors.

[Photo via Jake Brewer on Flickr, Creative Commons licensed]