Women’s equality is not clearly established in the UAE Constitution. In practice, women’s social, economic, and legal rights are not equally protected or consistently observed, because of traditional and institutional biases against women and the incomplete and selective implementation of laws. Women’s lives in the UAE and the laws that govern them differ dramatically, depending on the conditions of their citizenship and employment status.
Legal protection of women’s rights in the UAE, such as the right to equality before the law, tend to be applicable and enforceable mostly in the public sphere, outside the home, which is off-limits to most UAE women. Women’s rights at home are thus inadequately protected legally, and fathers and husbands exercise power over women, including the legal authority to prevent their daughters and wives from participating in professional and social life.
In some UAE legislation, women are discriminated against because of their gender, as, for example, in laws governing citizenship. Foreign women who marry male UAE citizens are routinely granted citizenship, but female UAE citizens are not permitted to transfer their nationality to their foreign-born husbands. A female UAE national is forbidden by law to marry a foreign man, and a 1996 law requires her to renounce her UAE citizenship if she marries a person from outside the Gulf region.
Foreign women constitute the largest part of domestic workers in the UAE, working as drivers, cooks, nannies, and housekeepers. Most of these women come from South and South-East Asia and work with little legal protection and under harsh conditions. UAE labour laws do not apply fully to domestic workers, and these women have few rights. Employers, who sponsor their visas, have the legal power to control their domestic workers, often resulting in severe abuse, such as limiting their freedom of movement, exploitation, and interfering with their dress and religious activities. Many domestic workers are subject to racism and ill-treatment from household members and may labour under slave-like conditions. The average domestic employee works fifteen hours a day, seven days a week.
About 50 percent of the female domestic workers interviewed for the International Labour Organization’s Gender Promotion Programme reported being abused verbally, physically, and/or sexually. The abusers may be their employers, family members of the employers, or even visitors. Many domestic workers are afraid to report abuse and simply live with it, for fear of being accused of illicit sex, a crime that can be punishable by death in the UAE. Marnie Pearce, a British national, was sentenced to 90 days’ imprisonment for adultery (she was released after serving 68 days in April 2009). Housemaids who run away from their employers and are caught by the police – or even those who approach the police in order to report abuse – risk arrest and imprisonment by the immigration authorities.