You know the scene in Sex and The City 2 when Carrie &friends go into a back room with the women in Abu Dhabi, and they take off their burkhas to reveal that they’re wearing Manolos, diamonds and Birkins?
That’s exactly how I would describe my afternoon at the Dubai Ladies’ Club.
I know, it’s a cheap metaphor (and I agree, that movie sucked, and I’m still not over it) but there’s really no better way to convey what goes on behind the scenes at the city’s exclusive “women’s only” club.
When I was told I was going to be spending an afternoon at the Ladies’ Club, I had literally no idea what to expect. I knew there were no men allowed and that there was a beach where conservative women could swim in bikinis instead of burkinis, but that was pretty much it. Like many women coming to the Middle East from a non-muslim country, I had my assumptions about the culture in Dubai, which were exagerated even further by the shoulders covered/knees covered/chest covered/ “business casual” dress code I was told I had to adhere to during the trip. I’m not proud of my pre-conceived notions about what it was like to be a woman in Dubai (and I know, SATC2’s portrayal of the UAE didn’t exactly help dispel them), but would be lying if I pretended they didn’t exist before the trip.
When we pulled up to the Ladies Club for lunch, our male bus driver had to drop us off outside of the gates because of the whole “no men allowed” thing. There were signs everywhere that commanded “ABSOLUTELY NO PHOTOS,” which was a tough pill to swallow for me and the other Instagram-obsessed girls I was traveling with.
The whole “no photos” thing was made even worse by the fact that the place is straight up gorgeous. Everything is opulent white marble, and the front hall overlooks a lush green lawn and stunning stretch of beach.
The lounge area is decked out in plush sofas, a full oxygen bar and a state-of-the-art “meditation pod” that looked like a high-tech egg. It was nicer than any country club I’ve ever set foot in, and the food was a lot better. The indoor/outdoor restaurant is basically a dream location for a #ladieslunch. It overlooks the ocean, and the menu has dozens of healthy options — including a seemingly endless selection juices and smoothies. I had a grilled shrimp salad and a green juice, which was by far the healthiest thing I put into my body during the entire week I was in Dubai.
As I chowed down and worked on my tan, I was overwhelmed by the sight of veiled women removing their veils upon entering the restaurant. And just like in Sex and the City, they were decked in diamonds the size of my fist (I know, it’s the metaphor that keeps on giving, but I can’t help myself).
“Women-only parties [like those that happen at the club] are where women really go all out,” says Maha Abdul Rasheed, the designer behind Dubai-based brand Bambah. “Women are more conservative during the day, but at these parties, that’s where they show off their jewelry.”
But contrary to what I expected, it wasn’t just women hanging out at the beach, showing off their jewelry and getting their hair/nails/makeup done while drinking green juices. There were also women sitting in meetings or hammering away on their laptops over spinach salads during what were clearly working lunches.
Not only is the ladies club a great place for a Girl’s Day Out (let me reiterate: It has workout classes, a spa, a salon, a pool, a beach and a juice bar) but it’s also really culturally important place for the women of Dubai. It was created by the King with the mission of being the home of “happy, healthy women,” and is committed to women’s social, physical and cultural well-being. The space is publicly funded, and anyone can be a member as long as they’re willing to pay membership fees (there’s no crazy selection process, like the actual Soho House or The Wing) – between 80 and 85 percent of the city’s female population belongs.
The spa offers massages, facials and hammams (traditional middle eastern baths), as well as various “bee sting therapies,” that are equal parts enticing and terrifying. I had a chance to get my hair and makeup done at the Dollhouse Salon, and it was amazing— While my stylist was blowdrying my hair, a woman came over and massaged my hands for 45 minutes. Talk about the royal treatment.
“This is a place women can go where they won’t feel judge,” says Mona Kattan who owns the Dollhouse Beauty salon located in the ladies club. “When they come here, people think, ‘I don’t want to have to worry about anything. Like getting a wax.”
The ladies club is a place where women can relax and enjoy themselves without having to worry about outside pressures, or defying the shiriah law with which the city is still governed. And trust me — there is plenty of opportunity to enjoy. Does anyone want to go back with me to get a bee sting facial?