Policewomen in Dubai: between Western prejudices and the ambiguity of Islamic feminism

Today, more than 1,500 women work for the Police in Dubai. Celebrated in the West as unique example of feminism in a cultural space where stereotypes would indicate otherwise, this phenomenon has important cultural and social meanings that challenge the dominant notions of women, policing and feminism in academic discourse.


The United Arab Emirates seem to enjoy reversing prejudices. Between a deeply-rooted set of traditions and a booming modernity, the country is known for its disconcerting paradoxes. In a country usually denounced as being archaic and male-dominated, Emirati policewomen have been in headlines of the newspapers for the past few years, almost becoming a national pride.

Today, more than 1,500 women are working in Dubai Police, 93 of them in leadership positions. Major General Taresh Eid Al Mansouri, director of the Human Resources Department at Dubai police, said the law of human resources at Dubai government has ensured the Emirati women’s full right to work and guarantees an equel treatment of the women with their male counterparts. “I feel very proud when I see the Emirati women perform the same duties of men, as this helps reflect a positive image about capabilities of UAE women”, he said.


“I am extremely proud of the achievements of female police officers”


It was 32 years ago, on September 16, 1978, that the first batch of women police officers joined Abu Dhabi Police. “I am extremely proud of the achievements of female police officers. Over these 32 years, we have grown into an integral part of the force” said First Lieutenant Shammaa Al Muhairi, a female lieutenant who was at the head of the women’s training session in Abu Dhabi for five years.

Sergeant Iman Salem Mubarak joined Dubai Police in 1992 and her job was to secure and protect the VIPs. She admits today that when she arrived, work was dominated by men. “Initially it was a shock and disbelief for my friends and relatives when they found out I wanted to join the police … but now they are most proud of me, she admits. My work is a unique experience, In every day work there is an adventure. I work on securing high profile female personalities. I do interesting and difficult tasks, that played a key role since the last years in changing my life on a personal level. I became more confident and it improved my self esteem. »


As Iman and Shammaa, most policewomen are very confident about their own abilities, as shown in a recent survey published by the British Journal of Criminology. This study, called “Self Efficacy Beliefs and Preferred Gender Role in Policing”, examines women’s self-perceptions of their ability to perform as effectively as their male counterparts, and revealed excellent results: out of all the policewomen who responded, three in five believe women can perform the same duties as male officers.


Largely recognized on the international scene, the Emirati police efforts for the inclusion of women in the police service was honored by the United Nations Award for Public Services in 2012. And the government keeps improving it. The Ministry of Interior has announced a plan last November to narrow the gap between male and female police officers, adding that women are just as capable of excelling in all fields of the task force as their male counterparts. With its 5,000 members, the Women’s Police Association was the spotlight of the second Regional Women Police Conference, held in Abu Dhabi in November 2013.

A reification of patriarchal social control ?


Policewomen have definitely become a national pride in the UAE. More recently, they were even pushed under the spotlights, for driving the priciest and fastest sport cars. In a male-dominated world, female officers driving a Ferrari are a sight to behold. “People stare at us for two reasons – one, the car we’re driving is a Ferrari, and the other is it’s being driven by two female police officers”, declares proudly Lieutenant Mariam Al Ka’abi. Immediately, the news was forwarded by foreign medias, and especially Western medias, announcing it as the liberation of Emirati women. But if these pictures taken of Emirati policewomen driving Ferraris are impressive, it looks more like an intelligent communication campaign from the UAE government toward Western countries. As the policewomen themselves admit it, their sport cars are not used to go after bad guys, but rather to catch the attention of people in the street. “We are not meant to chase criminals. By patrolling in such cars, we’re sending a message to tourists and residents that Dubai truly is a luxurious city” said Lieutenant Mariam. In a glitzy city like Dubai, women become a part of this show adressed to Western countries. As long as equality between men and women is perceived as a sign of modernity, the icing on the cake of having the priciest and fastest cars in the police patrols, is having women driving them.


But more than a communication campaign toward the Western countries, the deployment of policewomen in the Gulf context can also be viewed as a reification of patriarchal social control. They are largely used to control the behavior of women and to enforce laws that are patriarchal in nature. They can both be markers of liberalizing policies designed to win over the hearts and minds of the global community, and be deployed in ways that further reinforce customary patriarchal notions about the roles of women, such as being used to handle cases of women offenders, children and expatriate housemaids.


The Western construct of the subjugation of Arab/Muslim women reveals a form of cultural arrogance


If Western values have a great influence on the evolutions of Emirati society, thinking that it is seen by all Emiratis as a model to follow would be a huge mistake. Moreover, applying on this country our own notions of women and feminism, built by centuries of history in a specific cultural context, doesn’t make any sense. Not because Emirati people can’t be modern or defend feminist ideas, but because the concepts of modernity and feminism just don’t mean the same thing as in Western countries, and have to be studied with this very specific context in mind.


Women in positions of authority in the Arab/Muslim world are often celebrated in the West as unique examples of feminism in a cultural space where stereotypes would indicate otherwise. The Western construct of the subjugation of Arab/Muslim women speaks to a cultural arrogance coming from the colonial era, that problematic gender relations are over there. But the long tradition of women in policing in most of GCC countries is one of the examples knocking down this kind of prejudices. In “Getting in is not enough : women and the global workplace”, Colette Morrow and Ann Fredrick explain that “the emergence of modern policewomen in the Gulf region has important cultural and social meanings that challenge the dominant notions of women and policing in academic discourse“. In Western studies about policewomen, the increased deployment of women in policing is thought as occurring in the context of a secular democracy. Contrastingly, in the GCC contact, their deployment has occurred alongside regional trends of neo-traditionalism and Islamism.


Muslim feminists strategies and the desire to work within the structure of Islam


The main characteristic of the UAE is its apparent contradiction between a superficial modernity and very old traditions and values. If the UAE wants to reach the same level of modernity as Western countries, it still wants to achieve it in its own way, respecting its own traditions. For example, policewomen have been fighting for their right to include the hijab, or headscarf, in their police uniform, considering it a personal choice. Preserving their honor by respecting the local acceptable cultural and religious norms is often a way for these women to accede to new positions and new jobs without social rejection. Every step toward what is considered as modernization, is immediately balanced by the reasserting of traditional and local values. Although borrowing from Western feminists in their pursuit of greater employment opportunities, as in the policewomen case, Muslim feminists strategies differ significantly from those of the West because of the desire to work within the structure of Islam. As Saba Mahmood shows in “Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject” (2005), a study about women in Cairo mosques, the gender segregation associated with the Islamist movement may actually create opportunities for women in various occupation and roles that may expand their power, influence and authority.


Feminism is far from being a universal concept. Sociologists like Elizabeth Warnock Fenea in “In Search of Islamic Feminism” (1998) showed that feminism in the region operates within a framework of family-oriented feminist identity. Instead of fighting for the Western notion of strict equality between men and women, they rather push forward the notion of equity as the model to follow. Men and women are seen as having two different though complementary roles. For Elizabeth Warnock Fenea, “Islamic feminists strive to create equality, not for the woman as individual but for the woman as part of the family, a social institution still seen as central to the organization and maintenance of any society” (1998). This difference between equality and equity explains why policewomen are very often assigned to different cases than men, especially handling with women offenders, children and expatriate housemaids. “Human trafficking requires more proactivity from women. They are better positioned to deal with this crime because of its sensitive nature and because most victims are women,” said Maj Gen Khamis al Mazeina, the deputy head of Dubai Police. In the recent study “Self Efficacy Beliefs and Preferred Gender Role in Policing” we mentioned earlier, female officers themselves do not always prefer a fully integrated role, often favouring gender-specific jobs where women handle female offenders and victims.


Beyond the numerous Western prejudices and misunderstandings about policewomen and women conditions in Gulf countries, the main issue today for the UAE government would be to define an alternative model of gender integration for policewomen, adapted to the Gulf cultural and religious context.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s