THE BLOG

Views From Abu Dhabi: Part 1

06/06/2012 11:36 am ET | Updated Aug 06, 2012

As I walked through the grand mosque in Abu Dhabi, my chiffon abaya floating along, I felt more feminine than ever as I adjusted a scarf trimmed with sequins and flowers. The gesture Emirati women use to adjust their chiffon scarves seems more engaging than one would expect and I enjoyed sharing this experience. A visit to this extraordinary modern piece of architecture requires women to wear the traditional garb of an Emirati woman -- an abaya (a loose robe which covers the whole body except for the face, hands and feet) and a scarf to cover the hair and when circumstances require, to veil the face.

I spent time prior to my visit meeting with some extraordinary women starting with one of the few female ministers in the region: a Tufts graduate in her early 30s. She told me she has been mentored throughout her career by Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed. When you meet her, you immediately understand why he made this decision: she is softspoken and very clear about the ministerial opportunity and her role. As we spoke about everything from politics, education, marriage and how to balance family and career, she was clear about the commitment she has to her position. As she spoke, I saw how her hands, eyes, face and the tone of her voice were all framed by her veil and abaya, which were extremely powerful aids in the story she was telling.

She feels her traditional dress is actually empowering her in her work since attention could only be made to what she was saying and the expressions in her hands and face that accompany her commentary. Her accessories are three mobile devices and a laptop. I loved the juxtaposition of the traditional dress and modern technology.

She compared her life in the States wearing western dress and while she in fact does feel empowered in her traditional clothing, she is quire feminine at the same time. It is clear she takes pride in representing her government dressed in the abaya but she knows it also says look at this women and what she must do with this opportunity to pave a road for other women to follow.

Another Emirati woman I met who has an important position in the government authority started out as an I.T. specialist crawling under desks to a key management position at the airport. Her current position includes participation in the development of the new airport as well as an incredibly smart interactive site for all information regarding airport matters. She juggles this high powered position with a busy family life -- she has two children with, and is a real partner to, a very successful husband.

This woman designs her own abayas. We met for dinner and her abaya had gold collars and fine gold trim on the edge of the chiffon scarf framing her face. Her eyes are wide and expressive defined with a black kohl outline.

As she was telling me about her large family and the amount of food she enjoys cooking each day for the breaking of fast during the 30 days of Ramadan, she was showing me the new technology access, inflight information as well as the number of parking spots available in each lot at the airport on the site had a hand in developing. Her iPhone was vibrating away and her high powered approach to her work, family and the future of Abu Dhabi is illustrated in a column she writes every week.

She was telling me a story about an American celebrity she was escorting around Abu Dhabi. After some time, she was asked about when she felt women in the region would no longer be oppressed. She laughed and said 'We are Emirati women and we actually have more privileges than most women. We get paid for taking care of our children; where else does that happen!'

My companion for the trip to the mosque was a beautiful Lebanese expat woman who manages the affairs of guests involved with certain members of the royal family. She does not wear an abaya each day but she does to the mosque for prayer and during Ramadan. She makes it clear that during Ramadan she wears the abaya out of respect for the religious tradition.

This woman is vivacious and has lived in Canada for some time as well as other countries in the Middle East. She has long, wavy blonde hair and looks in some way like a Bridget Bardot with curves. She is dynamic and controls the schedules of many important people. She was a wealth of information about the culture from arranged marriages to the difference between Dubai and Abu Dhabi and the incredible Gandhi-like leader who conceived of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed.

I will not pass up the arranged marriage point. I have known quite a few women from around the world who are in arranged marriages. The interesting thing is they all last! So my question was why do they work? My Lebanese sister had some thoughtful comments about the simple fact that parents know their sons and daughters so well that they tend to find a compatible match. There is also a universal truth that children become the glue for every marriage even those where the chemistry that brought a couple together wears off. "We have to make it work and therefore we do."

When she put on the abaya and her scarf, I thought how great she looked even with the unexpected blonde hair falling out of the side of her scarf. Her personality did not change but my very feminine companion now looked quite different. I must say I even found her more powerful in traditional dress.

She told me how life as an expat woman in Abu Dhabi was really quite good and she couldn't imagine living anywhere else. She is expecting a child and there is no question in my mind she will continue to balance it all and make all parts of her life work. The modern women of Abu Dhabi have the challenge of balancing children, husband, career, and large families and are a strong, highly educated force.

The one thing that became clear to me was that in this country where the median age is 30, His Highness Sheikh Mohammad encourages women to explore the many opportunities life can offer.

Finally, I thought, if any of our presidential candidates took a page from Sheikh Mohammad's book and said they would pay women to take care of their own children because it is a real job, I think they would own the presidency for quite some time. How interesting is it that this Middle Eastern country has such an enlightened leadership to include thoughtful respect and consideration for mothers?

My trip to Abu Dhabi was for a project I am working on as a consultant to a business initiated by Sheikh Mohammad in support of Afghani women. My next blog will share the story of the wonderful opportunity I was given to be part of this effort.