The Legal Evolution of Women’s Rights in the UAE

International Women’s Day is the perfect opportunity not only to reflect on the progress that has been made toward gender equality in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), but also to celebrate the UAE’s position in leading the way to recognising gender equality in all aspects of local society. As a lawyer who has been based in the UAE for almost 15 years, I have been excited to witness a number of legal developments that have had a positive impact on women’s rights.

My areas of legal practice in the UAE centre around family succession, wealth / asset protection, inheritance and Wills. When I arrived in Dubai in 2008, the local legal landscape for private wealth and family  / matrimonial matters was limited; and for Wills, inheritance and guardianship, the position was very different to the English legal system that I had studied and trained in prior to my arrival.
Despite this, the sweeping changes that have occurred to drastically alter the legal landscape in the UAE, and the pace at which the laws have developed, is unprecedented – especially when the country was formed less than 50 years ago.

During my time here, I have been fortunate enough to work closely with clients of all nationalities, help them to navigate the local laws and advise on the effects of these laws on their and their families’ circumstances, for their benefit. Many of the developments have sought to move toward a legislative framework which blurs the distinction between the genders, especially in terms of legal entitlements, rights and recognition.

As one of the original members of the DIFC Wills Working Group, I was privileged to be involved in putting together the rules and procedures for the DIFC Wills Service Centre which opened its doors to the public in May 2015. As the first registry of its kind in the entire GCC region, the purpose is simple – allow testamentary freedom to eligible individuals to leave their assets entirely in accordance with their own wishes, in the event of their demise. Over time, the scope of the DIFC Will has widened and it remains a valuable and significant succession planning tool which thousands of individuals have opted into for the purposes of ensuring their families are protected if the worst were to happen. The ability to bequeath assets to individuals of choice has been cemented in the DIFC procedure and a positive consequence of the procedure is that it allows wives and daughters to be treated equally in inheritance matters where previously this was not the default position in the UAE.

In addition, through an appropriately drafted DIFC Will, a mother is now permitted to be sole legal guardian of her minor children in the event of death of the father. Furthermore, both parents can now choose guardians to care for their children whilst they are minors. Again, in contrast to the default position, this is a significant development which has given parents, particularly mothers, comfort and reassurance.

Further legislative changes have followed, and in November 2020 an overhaul was carried out to a number of existing local laws, not only restricted to asset protection and family law, but which impacted UAE society at large and served to bring the nation in line with international norms in some respects. Examples of the changes included removing penal consequences for alcohol consumption without a license, de-criminalising cohabitation between unmarried couples and reinforcing criminal penalties for physical relationships with minors under the age of 14 or those who lacking mental capacity. For women, there were a number of positive consequences of the 2020 reforms and these included tougher penalties for men who harass / stalk women and the upgrading of honour crimes against women to be punishable in the same manner as murder.

These wide-reaching changes were introduced at a time when the world was going through Covid restrictions and the positive message which the reforms sought to communicate served to cement the UAE as a liberal destination to live, work, invest and retire.

Under the existing local labour legislation, women already benefit from a progressive position. Examples include the requirement that women should be paid the same wage as men for carrying out the same work; and the prohibition of terminating a woman’s employment contract on the basis of her getting pregnant whilst in employment. Furthermore, the removal of restrictions preventing women from working during nights or in ‘hazardous’ jobs allows women to contribute to the UAE economy at large thereby allowing them to utilise their talents in all industries, as well as achieving undeniable career advances. The power of such progression is apparent in UAE society and inspirational to younger female generations who continue to be attracted by all that the UAE offers, not only in terms of professional development, financial success and unique opportunities, but also the enviable title of one of the world’s safest countries to live.

As an ambitious and vibrant country under visionary leadership, the UAE has further continued to update its laws to benefit women, and to introduce changes which replace restrictions which were increasingly being questioned in many areas of local society. Legal changes which have taken place in the regulation of family laws over the last few years and which have had a positive impact on society include:

2022 – social legislative reforms in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi – The Civil Family Court was introduced in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, along with a new set of legislation which amended many of the existing personal status laws for expats. This Court modernised the ways in which couples could marry, divorce, negotiate financial settlements upon the dissolution of marriage and determine custody and care of minor children of the family. The starting position no longer favours the husband in such situations and the Civil Family Court takes a much more liberal and balanced approach to dealing with situations, coupled with a process which is accessible and efficient for all who seek to use it.

In the areas of inheritance, the default distribution of a deceased individual’s estate no longer distinguishes between male and female heirs. Children, siblings and parents are all entitled to receive equal shares of inheritance regardless of gender. The Court testimony of females is now considered equal to males.

2023 – Reforms to the Federal (i.e. UAE) personal status law – similar to the reforms introduced by the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, the leadership introduced amendments to areas of marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody on a UAE-wide level, some mirroring the changes introduced in Abu Dhabi last year. Notable amendments include a woman’s right to file for divorce without prejudice to her rights in respect of the divorce, allowing joint custody of minor children to both the mother and the father, the recognition of unilateral divorce and removing the need to provide a reason for filing the divorce, and allowing the wife to apply for alimony from the husband following a divorce.

Legislative changes aside, developments in specific sectors are also supporting and empowering women in the UAE. There have been initiatives introduced by the UAE Central bank encouraging banks and financial institutions to ensure there is no disparity between men and women in relation to access to financial transactions, loans and credit facilities.

The last few years have seen the UAE evolve its legislative and social framework at breath taking speed and with maximum impact. I have no doubt that there is much more to come in terms of reform and change to benefit all sectors of UAE society to ensure maximum potential can be achieved by all who choose to call this country their home.

Tasleem Sayani – Trowers & Hamlins LLP

Tasleem Sayani is a senior legal associate at Trowers & Hamlins in the International Corporate and Private Wealth team.

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