Can a Woman Head a Household in Dubai? Our Reporter Ventures to Find Out

DUBAI — Grifters looking for a big score. Laborers keeping their families back home afloat. Middle-class couples seeking to raise their children free from the Mideast’s war zones.

Dubai, with its Bright Lights, Big City aura, and the six other city states that make up the United Arab Emirates, attract millions of job seekers each year.

I am one of them.

As the Baghdad bureau chief for The New York Times, my work life takes place in Iraq, where I travel frequently. But my family life is in Dubai, where my husband, a fellow journalist who covers Afghanistan, and I can enjoy the finer things in life like reliable electricity, supermarkets, multiplexes and beach walks.

To reside here, however, foreigners need a sponsor, either their employer or a family. And for me, as a woman, that was a problem — and a challenge.

In many ways, life in Dubai for women, whether married or single, is liberating compared with other countries in the region. Here we can drive, own property, play sports and walk home at night in safety.

But for foreign women, the sponsorship system can make daily life anxiety-ridden because of the country’s conservative view of gender relations.

According to immigration law, the person who wears the pants in the family is the husband. And so husbands must sponsor their wives, who are, by and large, legal dependents.

The imbalance of power can be emotionally unsettling and exploitative.

By law, a husband, as a woman’s sponsor, must agree to any job offer his wife receives. Bank accounts can be opened only by a head of household — the man. He must give his approval for his wife to get a credit card or a liquor license, required to legally consume alcohol.

At cocktail hour, expatriate wives morbidly joke about having an emergency stash of cash at home in case their husbands suddenly die. In the U.A.E., a sponsor’s bank accounts are frozen while authorities conduct an inquest into the death, leaving dependents without access to any money.

Advice gleaned from Dubai’s immigration authority hotline was similarly discouraging. Women can be considered heads of household only if they work in the medical profession or are professors. Exemptions are given only on a case-by-case basis.

Online, I found multiple websites dedicated to the issue of women sponsoring their husbands, many filled with anecdotes of failure and despair.

Still, we were encouraged in our pursuit because of another of Dubai’s well-known quirks: The letter of the law is often ignored as a practical workaround for a city that bills itself as a vacation destination for Western tourists.

Sex outside marriage is illegal, but unmarried couples, gay and straight, hook up in hotels without anyone asking for a marriage license. Women and men fill tables at one of Dubai’s cultural mainstays, the all-you-can-drink Friday brunch. Not a single waiter asks for a liquor license before serving you, or whether your husband approves.

So if we could find the right path through the maze of government bureaucrats, we thought we had a chance.

The first step was for me to get my work visa and residency. That was easy.

Aside from its traditional view of marriage, the U.A.E. has what is in many ways a remarkably liberal immigration policy that has transformed it in less than 50 years from an impoverished desert outpost into a leading energy producer and architectural marvel.

The Times has registered its office in Dubai in one of the city’s free zones, which allow multinational companies an easier legal framework to operate in. Within two weeks, and without much fuss, I was a legal resident.

After a couple more days, I signed a real estate contract, opened a bank account and applied for my liquor license. That was when our hurdles began.

Immigration clerks wouldn’t even give me the documents for family sponsorship. The paperwork uses the word “husband,” not a neutral word like “spouse.”

“You are clearly not a husband,” one of the clerks helpfully informed me.

Another official directed me to seek my exemption to the immigration law from a special office set up to handle humanitarian cases in Al Awir, a township in the desert on Dubai’s outer edges.

The out-of-the-way location revealed more cultural clues about how locals perceive women trying to paint outside the lines.

Al Awir is known as the home to a prison and the place where foreign female convicts are scheduled for deportation. Or, as the first immigration official called them: wayward women.

This is the same office where single working mothers try to get approvals to sponsor a nanny because of another twist of immigration law. While foreign men with families can sponsor and employ household help, single expatriate women don’t have that right. As an immigration official told me, “Why should a woman need a maid for herself?”

Before driving into the desert, I consulted my Dubai grapevine of professional women and longtime residents about what they thought of the advice to visit that special office.

Their consensus was to ignore it. Instead, they said to go to the main immigration department in downtown Dubai.

There, Emirati women are in charge of a separate department and, as working women themselves, are known to give a sympathetic ear.

“If they see you in person, and they like you, they’ll help,” said a working mother, Simona Cherif. “That’s the way of the Arab world.”

The next morning, I put on a smart business suit and entered the “ladies’ section” of the immigration building.

My petition to sponsor my husband turned into a lively back-and-forth, prompting a wry chuckle from the officer behind the desk.

“Lady, you seem talented,” she said, as she reviewed my paperwork attesting to my salary, my education and my marriage license. “Why did you marry a man who doesn’t support you?”

Although the setting, with perfumed tissues, tasseled pillows and the soft tinkle of teacups, seemed to encourage an exchange of heartfelt relationship advice, I was pretty sure her question was rhetorical. I kept my answer short and sweet.

“I married for love, not money,” I replied.

“I support your decision,” she said. “God willing, your love will survive and your husband appreciates you.”

Then, with a few clicks of her mouse, she granted my exemption.

Now, with my newfound power as a sponsor, I get to decide how much money my husband can withdraw from the bank. I also can decide whether he can buy alcohol or take out a car loan.

I’ll try not to let it go to my head.

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