The UAE's social norms make segregation of the sexes in many public places a fact of life. Not in a forced way, like in Saudi Arabia, but rather based on an optional model that provides 'special' amenities, such as ladies-only seats on buses or separate screenings at film festivals. From a Western perspective, it can be difficult to see that, in the local context, these services empower women because they allow those of a conservative background to make inroads into public life. Unfortunately, the ladies-only world is full of hair-raising language and practicalities.
To me, the most notable unintended consequence of these 'privileges' for women in the Emirates is that they are habitually grouped into the special needs category. Take the sign pictured above, announcing a priority line for 'ladies & disabled' at Carrefour supermarket, as an example. Presumably, this kind of thing happens for purely pragmatic reasons; due to local customs, the two groups share certain needs and, therefore, certain public spaces.
That said, the connection is also evident in the way people think, as this recent article in The National about women-only beaches in Dubai shows:
Why is the chairman (or should that read chairwoman?) of a disability association being quoted in an article about women-only beaches? It's especially baffling because her quote refers to child safety and the report also mentions that only boys below the age of four could accompany their female relatives to the beach, essentially ruling out a large proportion of the country's male children, disabled or not. Considering all this, how is this quote relevant to the story?
The answer: because, due to very real practicalities and the mental associations created by them, women in the UAE seem disabled to those around them, including supermarket managers and journalists. At least, this is how it seems to me. Obviously, my interpretation of things is prone to the usual biases. After four short years in the UAE, I make no claim to having gotten my head around the inner workings of this place, so it would be great to get other perspectives on this. Am I seeing things, or is this casual equation of able-bodied women and people with special needs rather disturbing?