DUBAI - The UAE is a beacon of women's rights in the Middle East where female students outnumber their male counterparts and one in five positions of power in government and business are held by women, prominent female figures claimed on Monday.
Women leaders from the world of business, politics and arts gathered in Dubai for the Women in the Arab World conference to laud the progress UAE had made in a region, where governments are often accused of treating women as second class citizens.
"I am proud to say that the UAE is looked up to as a model of Arab states in terms of supporting more opportunity for its female citizens,” Sheikha Lubna al-Qasimi, the country's foreign trade minister and one of its most recognisable female faces, told attendees.
Sheikha Lubna caused a stir among attendees when she said Emirati women outnumber men in the government sector, handle about 50 percent of the UAE's small and medium sized enterprises and manage investments worth over $4 billion.
"We (women) have in fact helped elevate business levels by about 50 percent over the past few years," she said. "We need forums such as these to erase the popular stereotypes of women as the weaker sex with limited social roles."
Sheikha Lubna is one of four women ministers, while the country's Federal National Council has nine female MPs that make up around a fifth of total members.
"These numbers are impressive, they break stereotypes," said Debora Spar, president of Barnard College, a liberal arts school for women in New York City that is hosting the conference.
"I have been struck by the women in this region, their camaraderie, their hunger for knowledge," Spar added.
A report this month by U.S.-based group Freedom House showed that women in the Middle East have secured a bigger economic role, but still suffer great inequalities.
Women in Saudi Arabia, for example, are not allowed to drive and strictly prohibited from mixing with men who are unrelated to them, hurdles that inhibit them from taking on a leading role in the business world.
"There are so many challenges that we as Arab women have to address and overcome. In many parts of the Middle East, family, personal, business and cultural structures still limit the full development of women's potential," Sheikha Lubna said, without naming countries with these limiting structures.
Sheikha Lubna was appointed the country's minister of economy in 2004, during the UAE's most prosperous economic period in history. She became minister of foreign trade in 2008.
"The father of our nation Sheikh Zayed often emphasised the importance of women in our society. He once said that 'women should not be deprived of the rights which god has instructed us to respect and observe'. Women should be respected and encouraged in whatever work they might do,” she said.
"In 2004 he opened the doors for women of our nation to take their rightful place in our government by appointing me as the UAE's first female minister,” she added.