All-Female Mall Opens in UAE

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- Women in the United Arab Emirates are being offered the chance to shrug off their traditional head-to-toe coverings and relax in a man-free paradise where shopping and pampering are the order of the day.

The She Zone, which opened in Abu Dhabi earlier this year, is the city's first all-female shopping mall, aimed at providing privacy and entertainment for women.

Women in this Islamic society traditionally wear the abaya, a black overcoat that covers them from head to toe, and often a veil as well. Under the Islamic code, women who wear the veil should not reveal their faces to men outside their immediate family.

"Women here have trouble being bothered in the street, and the men have no time to take their women to the market anymore," said Saeed Mohamed al-Hameli, managing director of the Mark Link property management company, which developed the project.

"It gives women more confidence if they are trying on makeup or perfume without their head coverings on," he said. "They need to feel relaxed, to have that freedom and privacy."

In the UAE, the abundance of shopping malls are favored meeting places for men, who spend hours drinking coffee and socializing in their spacious, air-conditioned interiors.

The UAE has one of more liberal societies of the Gulf Arab states and women can participate in most social activities. But special female-only facilities are often set aside for the use of conservative Moslem women.

Hameli said a similar women-only mall tried a few years ago in Dubai had not worked because the idea was not fully developed and the people involved had not chosen an appropriate location.

"[The Dubai mall] did not have the extra activities and entertainment we are offering," Hameli said. The She Zone mall was designed not only for shopping, but as a place for women to meet friends and spend time outside the home.

The mall has around 32 outlets and boasts mainly Arab-style shops, with products ranging from clothes and perfume to chocolate and cosmetics.

It has a mosque, a cinema, a gym, a business center and a video arcade.

All jobs inside the mall, from security guards to cleaners to technicians, are done by women.

Some 90 percent of the mall's customers are local women. Boys under the age of 10 can come in with their families.

Hameli said around 5,000 women had attended the mall's opening and it was now averaging some 1,100 visitors a day on weekends - Wednesday to Friday - and around 200 to 300 per day during the week.

The mall is open from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. and evenings are busiest.

A woman working in one of the mall's shops said that on weekends a lot of women would come and stay all day. She said business had been good straight after opening, but had tailed off a little after that.

Hameli said there had been some skepticism when the company approached shops about opening outlets in the mall, but they had seen growing interest since it had actually opened and was attracting customers.

But several women said they felt prices were too high and the range of shops limited.

"The problem is that prices are not always reasonable ... and they need to expandto give a better selection," said 28-year-old Hala.

But she added that she thought the mall would prove to be popular.

"It's good for the traditional ladies who don't go out much, as they can come here with their kids and meet their friends and feel as if they are at home."

Hameli said the company had plans to set up a similar store in the desert town of Al Ain and had good associate partners in Saudi Arabia.

He said Mark Link had spent 1 million dirhams ($272,000) before the opening of the mall on advertising and promotion and put the cost of the whole project at around 9 million dirhams.

Hameli said turnover for the first year was expected to be not less than 18 million dirhams.