Bridging the Gulf: Women architects in the UAE

By Razia Iqbal
BBC News


Some in the West get the impression that the Middle East offers women little in the way of equal opportunities but, in the United Arab Emirates, female architects are helping design and build their own cities.

In the past decade, the Dubai skyline has been utterly transformed, with steel and glass towers emerging out of the desert at a striking rate.

And the biggest of them all - the Burj Khalifa - puts Dubai on the world map, as the city with the tallest building in the world, its tip piercing the clouds and forcing the eye ever upwards.

Image caption,
The Burj Khalifa is 828 metres ( 2,716 ft) high

It is this huge building boom which partly explains why a surprisingly disproportionate number of women are choosing to study architecture. Pallavi Dean is a startling figure on a building site - eight and a half months pregnant, wearing a shiny, pink, hard hat.

When I joined her on the site, she and I were the only women there, and I looked on in admiration as she negotiated with engineers and designers, plans in her hand and handing out instructions. Educated in the United Arab Emirates, Pallavi is in no doubt that there is a connection between the building boom and the rising number of young women studying architecture.

"The ratio is 80% women and 20% men, yet that figure is the other way around in the workforce. I've always wondered why."

In addition to working and raising a family, Pallavi Dean lectures at the American University at Sharjah, where she hopes she presents the young women with a solid role model of combining the profession with family.

The university is only 15 years old. Before the huge marble and stone campus sprang up - with its vast courtyards and a nod to Arab aesthetic in the arched windows and geometric mosaics - it was largely sand dunes.

Sitting talking to three women and two men in their final year of their five-year course, I was struck by their innate confidence. All three women - Fatima al-Zaabi, Fatma Abdulla Hussain, and Ruba al-Araji - have a determination and energy to succeed.

Image caption,
Architecture students Ruba, Fatima and Fatma are keen to make a difference

Ruba says she cannot believe that people's attitude to women in the Middle East is informed by one country, Saudi Arabia.

"That is just one country. It is not all of the Middle East. People think we can't drive, that we can't do anything, but we go out, our parents let us study with boys."

Samia Rab, who is an associate professor at Sharjah, admits it was not easy to persuade parents of young women of the unique culture of architecture. She says, "Our building is the only one on campus open till midnight. It was a big challenge, but we didn't bend."

And for the minority in the class - the young men - also in their final year, there is no difference between men and women inside the classroom.

Laith Mahdi says, "We don't feel this border between men and women. We are all one type of student. Whether we cast in concrete or metal - those are the interesting issues."

The lively interaction between the young men and women is an indication of how the culture is changing, at least in this part of the Middle East. Fatima al-Zaabi maintains that she is going to succeed in her ambition as a professional architect, "whatever it takes."

Sumaya Dabbagh is from Saudi Arabia, one of the few Saudi women who has made it in the world of architecture.

But it has been a long journey for her to set up her own practice in Dubai. Her studies at Bath University in the UK were initially sponsored by the Saudi government. Then it changed its mind on discovering that women and men would have to work closely together in the profession.

She was allowed to continue studying as long as she changed her subject. She refused and went on to qualify. When she decided to move back to the Middle East, she chose to go to the United Arab Emirates, where she would be freer to pursue her professional goals than she would ever be in Saudi Arabia.

All the women I met - both in Dubai and Abu Dhabi - sensed that change was very much in the air. With more women studying the subject and trying to make an impression in the work force, will this change what is built in the future?

Pallavi Dean and the architecture students I spoke to agreed that women tend to think holistically about the built environment, about the spaces between steel and glass towers and about trying to reflect the vernacular - or traditional Arab - aesthetics in what is built from now on.

Maryam Ali is only 23 but already she is a senior architect for the Dubai Municipality.

Her passion is not just for building the new but for the preservation and renovation of the old. She has proposed that a school built in the 1970s (very old in the context of how new much of Dubai is) should not be demolished. She feels that new uses should be found for it.

She says, "It's important for young people to look at what we have, take it and make it better. History and art are both very important."

Bridging The Gulf will be broadcast on Friday 1 February 2013 at 11:00 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Or catch up later on the BBC iPlayer using the link above.