Dr Jillian Schedneck received her PhD from the University of Adelaide in Gender Studies, where she researched national identity and the representation of gender among young Emirati artists in the United Arab Emirates. She is the author of the travel memoir Abu Dhabi Days, Dubai Nights, and currently works as a Retention and Transition Officer for the Humanities faculty at the University of Adelaide.
Volume 30, May 2014
Women in the UAE have long been recognised as equal partners in national development and the Government continues to pursue a strategy of empowering women in cultural, social and economic fields.
UAE Yearbook 2010, opening page of chapter on ‘Women’, 186
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) government’s public relations branch provides stories about Emirati women’s empowerment and equal rights directed toward Western audiences by utilising Emirati women as national symbols of secular liberalism and cultural authenticity. While deploying women as national symbols is common within Muslim countries (Timmerman), what is different about this representation is the keen focus on young Emirati women, and the way in which second wave feminist language such as ‘rights’, ‘equality’ and ‘empowerment’ are adopted as implicitly the correct language to use for the Western gaze. As McRobbie (Aftermath of Feminism) notes, the language of female empowerment is connected to demonstrations of modernity. I argue that the UAE government uses this language to show that the UAE exists as a ‘modern’ country, where Emirati women have been given their rights. Therefore, the UAE government is egalitarian and implicitly ‘feminist’ in its policies (although it never uses the word ‘feminist’ because of its Western association of women fighting independently for rights). Emirati women’s potential collective struggle for rights and equality has been pre-empted by the UAE government, and in this way Emirati women should have no reason to resist or complain about their government. Thus, the official discourse becomes an important means of state control.
I argue that state-sponsored women’s empowerment is an accurate term for this official discourse, and that the language of feminism is used to show Western readers that Emirati women have the same ‘rights’ as Western women. This paper also concerns Emirati women’s responses to their government’s discourse. I have found that the young Emirati women in this research exhibit invested agency within this discourse for the promised benefits it offers. I provide context for the terms ‘state-sponsored feminism’ and ‘state-sponsored women’s empowerment’ as applied to Western and Middle Eastern nations, before analysing the prominent features of the discourse disseminated by the UAE government to promote Emirati women as ‘free’ and empowered to show how and why the language of feminism is used in this case. I then lay out my theoretical frame to explain female participants’ responses to this discourse, and analyse participants’ ‘investment’ within the subject positioning provided by their government. Finally, I present an account of why Emirati women feel negatively toward the term ‘feminism’.
In order to learn Emirati women’s responses to state-sponsored women’s empowerment, among other aims, I interviewed a total of forty young Emiratis living in Dubai and Abu Dhabi from August to December in 2011. The twenty-six national women who participated in this study were between the ages of 20 and 35, with the majority of participants between the ages of 23 and 28. The majority of female participants were pursuing a Bachelors degree at one of the local universities or employed in creative fields like marketing, visual arts and design. In many ways, these are the types of women the UAE government and local media promote through their feature articles and tourism documents: young, educated, employed, and veiled. Therefore, these participants were well-positioned to respond to their government’s symbolic representation of Emirati womanhood.
Political scientist Leila DeVriese explains that the UAE has a “‘state-sponsored feminist agenda’, in which Emirati women are strongly directed by the government” (in Momayo), and where women are seen as instruments to be ‘empowered’. The aim is to showcase women as empowered by their enlightened leadership in order to globally demonstrate the UAE’s modern attitude. Strobl (‘Women’s Police Directorate in Bahrain’ and ‘Progressive or Neo-traditional?’) uses the term ‘state feminism’ to describe the Bahraini government’s attempt to reconstruct Bahraini policewomen’s image in order to display the ruler’s liberal agenda. Within the Gulf region, this state-sponsored feminist agenda often takes the form of appointing female citizens to top-ranking positions within the government, such as ministers and members to the UAE’s Federal National Council (FNC), as well as supporting Gulf women’s entrepreneurial endeavours. While such appointments are rare and can be seen as tokenism, they are heavily stressed in the local media.
Krause writes about state feminism within the Gulf, and points out that the term is used to describe the process of a state’s involvement in women’s interests. She argues that while this model has given women some greater independence, it ultimately does not allow for radical change, since the women of these groups typically are prohibited from criticising their government. Within the UAE, the government either runs women’s organisations or sponsors the running of women’s organisations. Therefore, involvement in such groups, referred to as either government-run organisations or government-organised non-government organisations, leads women toward following the policies of the state. Krause identifies state feminism within the Gulf as a system that offers many opportunities for national women while also acting as a means of constraint within the government.
I use the term ‘state-sponsored women’s empowerment’ to describe the UAE government’s involvement in promoting their attitude toward women’s rights, since this term is more appropriate. The UAE government does not use the word ‘feminism’. Therefore, when applied to the Middle East, the implications of that word do not appropriately explain the government’s willingness to initiate programs and support Emirati women in education and employment. Clearly, the terms state-feminism or state-sponsored feminism are used in an ironic or at least ambiguous sense, since women are being used strategically by their respective governments, and not benefitting from fully committed feminist policies. State-sponsored women’s empowerment, then, is the more accurate term because Gulf national women are seen as instruments to be ‘empowered’.
It has been well documented that nations often position women as demonstrators of both the modernisation and tradition of their nation (Chatterjee; Joseph and Slyomovics; Kandiyoti Women, Islam and the State; Ray; Sinha), since women bear the ‘burden of representation’ for their nation (Yuval-Davis 45). The most prominent display of state-sponsored women’s empowerment discourse comes from the 2010 UAE Yearbook, a downloadable e-book on the UAE’s government-sponsored news website (UAE Yearbook), produced by the government’s public relations branch, the National Media Council (NMC). The Table of Contents shows chapters with titles such as ‘Oil & Gas’, ‘Health’, ‘Political System’, and ‘Environment’. Chapter 17 is called ‘Women’; there is no complementary chapter titled ‘Men’. Thus, Emirati women are presented as just another ‘thing’, another marker of development and progress in the UAE’s Yearbook. Since 2001, the UAE Yearbook has reserved a lengthy section on ‘Women’ within its ‘Social Development’ chapter, and again Emirati men received no equivalent section. Yet in the current edition of the UAE Yearbook, ‘Women’ now receive their own chapter. This highlights the important role of women as the markers of modernity, and the idea that men constitute a ‘default’ category, where their roles are so stable they are not worth mentioning (Timmerman).
The ‘Women’ chapter opens with a full-page photo of two young Emirati women, wearing national dress, black abaya cloaks and black sheylas, or headscarves. They stand posed in conversation with Dubai Creek in the background. Inside the chapter, there is a chart from the 2009 Gender-related Development Index (GDI) produced by the United Nations. The columns in this chart compare men and women’s life expectancy, adult literacy, educational enrolment, and the overall Human Development Index. UAE ranks 175th in life expectancy, 5th in adult literacy, and 2nd in educational enrolment of women compared to men. Overall, the UAE ranks 137thin GDI compared to the Human Development Index (HDI). For context, GDI compared to HDI puts Mongolia in first place, and Afghanistan at 145. For adult literacy, Haiti is 3rd, and Afghanistan is 145th. And for educational enrolment, Cuba is 1st and Afghanistan is 175th. The UAE is placed 38th overall in this GDI. The chapter also boasts a ranking of 25th in the Gender Empowerment Measure (put out by the United Nations Development Programme) out of 109 countries. This focus on the various gender and development measures produced by the UN shows the NMC’s keen attention to specific criteria approved by Western nations to prove that Emirati women are receiving increasingly equal treatment to men, and that the UAE government is continuing to take steps to improve these rankings. The state-sponsored women’s empowerment agenda in the UAE clearly functions as a response to international human rights’ organisations calling for greater signs of gender equality.
Further inside the ten-page chapter, there is information about the achievements of Emirati women. The late president’s wife, Sheikha Fatima, is credited with orchestrating the policies of women’s ‘empowerment’. She is quoted as saying that women are ‘no long[er] busy claiming their rights, but exercising them’ (189). The chapter goes on to state that Emirati women hold positions within the government and are also employed as pilots, engineers and police officers – as well as in the fields of medicine, teaching, nursing and the military (outside of photography, there is little mention of work in the arts fields, but instead more of the traditional and male dominated fields). They are investors, business owners and bankers. In addition, the chapter states that Emirati women enjoy high quality healthcare provided by the government, particularly maternity and child-care.
Throughout the chapter, there are several more pictures of smiling young Emirati women: they are waving UAE flags at a National Day celebration and reading Arabic script. A young woman is shown taking photographs with a professional camera, with a caption stating that, ‘women are making their mark in employment in areas that were traditionally male-dominated’ (191). The last picture is of a young Emirati woman in a pilot’s uniform smiling next to an airplane. Emirati women are clearly shown as ‘free’ and ‘empowered’ through their apparent satisfaction with their nation as well as their fulfilment in a variety of professions. The NMC and local media often call upon young, unmarried Emirati women as their examples of egalitarian gender parity and support for women. Such documents rarely call upon the ‘mothers of the nation’. Depicting ‘mothers of the nation’ is a typical and powerful trope for promoting female citizenship and nationhood, since social reproduction is a means to assert cultural knowledge and traditional practice (Sinha). Yet, within the NMC documents, motherhood is rarely mentioned, signalling a new trope of young womanhood combined with high educational and career achievements.
Thus, the government clearly portrays itself as taking the lead role in encouraging and providing opportunities for young Emirati women within the public sphere. This role aligns with Western development expectations on measures of gender equality and women’s empowerment. Clearly, this ‘empowerment’ mainly occurs through a wide range of employment opportunities and access to higher education. Throughout the chapter, the words ‘empowerment’ or ‘empower’ are used eight times, and ‘rights’ is employed seven times. Other words connected to the language of second wave feminism are often utilised as well, such as ‘advancement’, ‘progress’, ‘enhancement’, ‘participation’, ‘achievement’ and ‘development’. These word choices, as well as the focus upon Western measures of gender equality, show that this discourse is attentive to the kind of language that Western readers would recognise.
Gill and McRobbie (‘Post-feminism’, ‘Top Girls?’ and Aftermath of Feminism) show that governments within the UK and France substitute feminism with the language of empowerment and rights, thus displacing the vocabulary of feminism. McRobbie (‘Post-feminism’) writes that the language of freedom and choice is now linked with the category of young women. As a result, young women feel that there is no need for feminism, since ‘feminism’ involves fighting or rights. Therefore, Gill and McRobbie use the word postfeminism to describe the belief feminism is no longer necessary because women have become sufficiently ‘empowered’ and equal to men. Other scholars of postfeminism (Pomerantz, Raby and Stefanik) agree that the language of second wave liberal feminism is used, revised and depoliticised so that feminism is believed to be irrelevant in women’s lives. When employed by agencies of the state, McRobbie (‘Top Girls?’) identifies words like ‘empowerment’ and ‘equality’ as a feature of Western modernity; they serve as assertions of ‘modern’ ideas about young women. The UAE governmental discourse takes a similar approach in order for the UAE to prove its connection to modernity.
Gill and Scharff argue that feminist notions of empowerment ‘have been taken up and sold back to us emptied of their political force’ (743). McRobbie (‘Top Girls?’) echoes this idea by explaining that governments are now taking care of young women, who are so busy with educational and employment opportunities that they have no time for feminist politics. This relates to the official UAE governmental discourse, which highlights the rulers’ ‘modern’ sensibility toward women’s empowerment, freedom and choice, while also discouraging a feminist movement, if such a movement was likely to occur. Any disadvantages women face are a reminder that the government continues to play an important role in women’s lives (McRobbie, ‘Top Girls?’).
Ringrose points to a new ‘seductive narrative about girls’ educational and workplace success, where girls have become a ‘metaphor’ for social mobility and social change’ (472). Even more broadly, Gavey asserts that it is now common knowledge that young women are seen as the ‘particular beneficiaries of the reconfigured conditions associated with late modernity’, and are the ‘success stories of current times’ (54). Of the UK, McRobbie (‘Top Girls?’) writes that the young woman has become ‘an active and aspirational subject’ (727) within education and employment. Even though the case studies cited occurred in the UK, I argue the same for young Emirati women of the UAE because these women are also lauded as ‘success stories’ within the NMC documents and the local media. It is also clear that their success would not have been possible without UAE government support. The government particularly focuses on young women’s ‘empowerment’ as a relatively recent way to signal modernity. While the official discourse attempts to display the nation’s development through the symbolic role of Emirati women, there are counter narratives to this discourse found within international human rights and academic publications on the Gulf and the United Arab Emirates.
Freedom House, a US-based human rights advocacy NGO, has researched various factors that undermine so-called women’s rights in the UAE. In a 2010 study, the organisation documented Emirati families forbidding their daughters to work, Emirati women’s lack of participation in the formal economy, and employers’ reluctance to promote young Emirati women whom they believe will soon marry and leave their jobs after a few years of employment (Gallant; Kirdar). Women have few opportunities for professional development or promotion, and men are often shown more respect than women in the workplace. Women do not achieve promotions at the same rate as men within the executive branch of the government (Kirdar). Emirati women are more likely to earn less than Emirati men because of the positions they take up and gender discrimination; however, this is also a well-documented problem in the West and other countries outside the Middle East, despite Equal Employment Opportunity legislation. The same criticisms have been found in neighboring Oman, despite the Omani government’s rhetoric of supporting and promoting women (Al-Lamky). Women in the UAE are prohibited from ‘hazardous, arduous, or physically or morally harmful work’ by the Ministry of Labour (Kirdar 9). Family conflicts are often cited as the reason why Emirati women resign from employment. Of the Emirati population, 57.6% of men are employed compared with 14.9% of women (UAE National Bureau of Statistics). Emirati women make up 2.9 % of the total workforce of the UAE (Lazar).
Domestically, Kirdar has also found that Emirati women can be restricted from leaving the country without permission from their husbands or guardians. Emirati women are prohibited from marrying outside of their religion, while Emirati men are allowed up to four wives, and men can divorce simply by stating their wish to do so. An Emirati woman must be granted a divorce from her husband. If divorced, a woman receives custody of female children until they are 13 and males until they are 10, and at that point the ex-husband is given custody. If the mother remarries she forfeits her rights to custody of the children from the previous marriage. Police are reluctant to interfere in instances of domestic abuse as issues between married couples are seen as private (Kirdar).
Other gendered restrictions participants have spoken to me about include not being allowed to travel alone, feeling pressure to wear the abaya and sheyla, and not being allowed to work in more prestigious fields. In a larger sense, Kirdar also points that the UAE’s ‘state-sponsored feminism…does not present a meaningful change on the societal level’ (13), since the government appointments Emirati women have received often offer no real power, and Emirati women in general lack control over policy decisions (Kirdar). This again provides evidence of tokenism. Gallant argues that the rulers’ leadership of the UAE and its policies toward women have reinforced the patriarchal power structure, which often portrays women as childlike and in need of guidance from a father figure. It could be said that Emirati women have moved from a private patriarchy under the control of men in their families, to a public patriarchy, ‘where women experience the patriarchal control of a larger community of men’ (Sinha 197).
Similarly, Al-Lamky notes that in Oman, male privilege is still perpetuated and women are still subordinated, despite the developments to the region and the recognition of women therein. For example, Al-Lamky notes that Omani girls outperform boys academically at all levels, and yet this achievement does not equate to equal opportunity in employment. Also, many of the Omani women Al-Lamky interviewed attributed their success to supportive husbands rather than their own abilities. Like the UAE, the gender ideology of Oman has emphasised separate roles for men and women within law and custom, portraying women’s and men’s work as fundamentally different. And also similar to the UAE, in Oman the highest authorities appoint women to leadership roles, even though such appointments do not reflect the dominant mood within Omani society. Considering these limitations, then, my research sought to discover if and why Emirati women still take up the gendered subjectivities offered by their government rather than seeking an alternative.
The UAE’s state-sponsored women’s empowerment agenda is accepted and unchallenged by the Emirati women I interviewed. Through the theoretical lens of Hollway’s discussion of ‘investment’ in shaping subjectivities, I argue that Emirati women negotiate the terms upon which they engage in the dominant discourses relied upon by the UAE government, and their ‘investment’ within these discourses. Therefore, I more broadly argue that participants exhibit ‘invested agency’ within the national discourse. This is a term I coined to describe the ways in which female participants’ subjectivities are shaped by the discourses around them, and speak from within and to them.
The concept of agency is central to discourses of empowerment. While there are many theoretical frameworks concerning agency, theories and critiques presented separately by Hollway, Moore, and Rose most effectively elucidate and inform my research. Aligned with the critiques cited above, these theorists refuse to see agency as resistance against a patriarchal oppressor that wishes to control and reject female subjectivity. In their works, Hollway, Moore and Rose have all denied the binary of domination and resistance, and look toward more complex processes of investment in certain gendered subject positions where the promised social and material benefits are often real, as well as limited.
Hollway’s theory of investment in certain kinds of gendered subjectivities proposes that there is some incentive or fulfilment in this subject position. She argues that any social analysis of subjectivity must account for a person’s investment in that subject position, and why investment in a different discourse has not taken place. She posits that our subject positioning is not involuntary, since if that were the case we would not see any kind of difference in subjectivity. Variability is then produced, Hollway contends, by the multiplicity of discourses, consequences and interpretations available. She is keenly focused on why women take up different subjectivities from each other – what is the investment some women see that others do not? I attempt to answer this question in the following section.
Investment has been used by Moore to describe the motivation to adopt certain subject positions. These investments are emotional and vested interests, and can provide tangible benefits within the dominant discourse, rewarding the ‘senior man, the good wife, the powerful mother or the dutiful daughter’ (Moore 64). This investment relates to shared reality, our relationship to others, as well as real economic and social benefits (Hollway; Moore). Such relationships also extend to modes of subjectivity and a person’s subject position as dominant or marginalised in a given context, both of which are tied to power relations, economic realities and the consequences of those interactions (Moore). Investing in a gendered subject position also has its limitations. Moore writes, ‘Such interest or commitment resides in the relative power, conceived of in terms of the satisfaction, reward or payoff, which a particular subject position promises, but does not necessarily provide’ (Moore 64). The investment might not ‘pay off’, leaving subjects to negotiate and rationalise the benefits of their gendered subjectivity. Any sense of satisfaction might be in opposition to other feelings, which are often irrational and unintentional. Yet Hollway asserts that there are reasons to invest in certain kinds of gendered subjectivities that are much more complex than seeking to resist oppression from more dominant forces, such as the state or patriarchal authority.
Investing and possessing agency within a certain gendered subject position is also limiting as a form of liberation, since agency is just another form of subjectification that calls upon human beings to act as subjects of a specific sort of freedom (Gannon and Davies; Rose). Moore also points out that this sense of benefit or pleasure received from investment in a gendered subject position only relates to specific modes of ‘institutionalized discourses and practices, that is, in the context of certain sanctioned modes of subjectivity’ (64). Therefore, the kind of freedom and benefit possible remains within the prescribed subject position, and is difficult to move beyond.
Through discourse, the UAE government generates a sense of agency for Emirati women. While structurally patriarchy remains the dominant form of power, the Emirati women I interviewed are highly invested in their subject positions as empowered Emirati women with the freedom to become educated and maintain careers. Through this investment they are rewarded with material and social benefits, despite some of the disadvantages that also occur. While the theory of investment explains Emirati women’s subject position, this idea must be considered as part of the ‘freedom’ available within the state-sponsored women’s empowerment discourse.
To contact and locate research participants, I used convenience sampling. I encountered potential participants at art events such as gallery openings and exhibitions, and discovered participants through their Twitter and Facebook accounts, as well as personal blogs and websites that gave their contact information. The Emirati women in this study were very eager to be part of this research, with some participants responding to my email request for an interview within minutes. Interview data was audio recorded, transcribed, and then analysed into common themes of opinions based on the Grounded theory method (Strauss and Corbin).
At each interview – typically at a coffee shop within one of Dubai’s malls – female participants were presented with the Table of Contents page of the 2010 Yearbook and asked for their reaction to the ‘Women’ chapter and the words ‘feminism’ and ‘empowerment’. In this section, I argue that there are a number of reasons to invest in the position offered by the UAE’s state-sponsored women’s empowerment agenda. The overwhelming response to the ‘Women’ chapter in the 2010 UAE Yearbook was that it was a very positive representation that honoured Emirati women’s importance, especially at the present moment. While many participants admitted that the category of ‘Women’ did not quite fit among the other chapter titles, all the female participants were still pleased with the Contents page and Women chapter, stating that the chapter was meant to tell people outside the UAE that Emirati women have experienced positive changes because of the country’s unification and modernisation. Female respondents nearly unanimously felt that the chapter exhibited the progress of women – their circumstances in pre-oil days and their current status as Emirati women with a plethora of education and employment opportunities. Baker similarly found that young Australian women also compared their lives to previous generations and stated that their freedoms and opportunities are fortunately much greater. While there are similarities between these reflections, Emirati women also importantly consider the Orientalist gaze, which sees them as lacking these opportunities and choices. Therefore, female participants are even more invested in displaying and cherishing these ‘freedoms’ that they did not even have to fight for.
When compared with other Gulf Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, and other Middle Eastern countries involved in current revolutions, participants stated their appreciation for their country’s stability and promotion of Emirati women. Awareness of the global perception of women’s rights as markers of the country’s development encourages investment in the subject positions offered to female participants by the government. Emirati women are also invested in highlighting their differences, particularly from Saudi Arabian women, toward whom most participants expressed sympathy for their lack of rights. In this case, participants expressed pride in representing the UAE as a country that treats women in the ‘right way’, and Emirati women display this pride through wearing the national dress, attending university and seeking out fulfilling careers, which I do not see as necessarily disrupting the patriarchal structure. For example, this disruption might take the form of protesting the fact that only males can become rulers of the Emirates, or investigating/garnering more media attention to the exploitation of South Asian labourers and the government’s potential complicity with companies that fuel this exploitation. Such protests and investigations from young Emirati women that might challenge the patriarchal order are not occurring in the UAE.
Participants acknowledge that the government’s representation of Emirati women’s unfettered ambition and freedom is not the entire picture. Yet this picture is necessary to show outsiders as well as other Emirati women that powerful support is present in Emirati women’s lives. This is aided by comparison to other Arab nations’ treatment of women, and the widely held understanding that the Western world thinks Emirati women (along with Gulf/Arab women) are oppressed and without rights. Many participants were aware that the ‘Women’ chapter spoke to Western Orientalist perspectives of the Middle East, and stated that this chapter should exist to tell Western countries that women are not oppressed in the UAE. For example, Shamma, a 23 year-old visual artist, discussed why she felt the UAE government included a chapter on women but not on men:
Maybe because . . . the UAE is really supportive . . . of the women to show they are not unequal or being treated unfairly . . . In the Arab world they focus on the women and how they are being treated by the men, but don’t talk about the men . . . always the woman. So this shows that women do have a voice and do have rights.
This quotation highlights Shamma’s awareness of the Orientalist perception, and her alignment with the government’s aim to change this dominant discourse. Participants were also invested in the possible benefits of being perceived as ‘having rights’ and aligning with discourses that promote this, even as contradictions to this subject position arise. However, it is certainly true that participants I spoke to were also invested in showing me – a Western foreigner – the ‘best version’ of their culture and country. Instead of attempting to decipher the accuracy of their statements, I aim to theorise their responses with an awareness of my position as a white female researcher. Therefore, the interpretation of this data focuses on the image that is created for outsiders by participants.
Yet participants did not only discuss the divide between West and East or wider society versus international governments, but also private versus public: the family unit versus the UAE leaders. Participants often admitted that the UAE government is much more progressive than actual UAE families, which can range from more ‘traditional’, by encouraging daughters not to work, to more modern and open-minded, allowing daughters to work and travel (although often some convincing is still needed). Participants expressed gratitude for the government’s progressive role in promoting Emirati women in the public sphere and viewed the domestic sphere as most constraining to Emirati women’s personal and career achievements. As the government offers young Emirati women more opportunities for education and employment than their families would necessarily support, investment in the subject position offered by the government does appear to generate greater material and social benefits.
Government sanction of university education and employment give Emirati women a powerful institution to support their ‘right’ to pursue careers in the public sphere. These roles become part of contributing to the UAE nation, rather than Westernisation, hence Emirati women invest in the positions supported by the state-sponsored women’s empowerment agenda for a variety of reasons. They wish to receive the greater promised benefits of taking up the government sponsored gendered subject position, as opposed to that imposed by one’s family or possibly found within other Middle Eastern nations. They therefore exhibit ‘invested agency’ within the official discourse on state-sponsored women’s empowerment.
Even though the UAE government relies upon a liberal feminist language of women’s ‘empowerment’ in education and employment, which participants clearly approve of, it is also evident that participants did not approve of the word ‘feminism’ when its language was not tied to government authored documents about Emirati women. Participants perceive ‘feminism’ as coming from the secular West, promoting strict equality between men and women, so that women ‘act like men’. As Gill notes, ‘A certain kind of liberal feminist perspective is treated as common sense, while at the same time feminism and feminists are constructed as harsh, punitive and inauthentic, not articulating women’s true desires’ (161). This is certainly the case among female participants, who felt that while their rights and empowerment were provided by their rulers, culture and religion, feminism itself had gone too far in its rigidity, militancy and lack of femininity. I acknowledge that understanding the minority radical feminist point of view as mainstream is a common perception, especially among conservatives in the West, and those outside the UAE and the Middle East. However, my point here is to demonstrate the strategies young Emirati women use to reject the idea of feminism as they perceive the term, even as they support their government’s use of feminism’s language. Thus, the term ‘feminism’ and anyone or anything associated with the term were unappealing to participants.
As participants do not recognise the state-sponsored women’s empowerment as ‘feminist’ or as using feminist language, in a similar way to young women in Australia (Baker; Stuart and Donaghue) and the UK (McRobbie, ‘Top Girls?’) they feel they have ‘no need for feminism’, since their rights and opportunities have been given to them. Feminism, which is understood by female participants as women collectively fighting for rights and equality with men, has been made redundant. Female participants are explicitly against feminism as a concept, as they state that they ‘don’t think this should be an issue’ anymore and that feminism is ‘not a right way of thinking’. As Hana put it:
The problem is the more you want to be seen as an equal to a guy the more you become more manly, whereas you can be feminine but really strong. Because if we try to be just like them, we’re showing them they’re the better race. Does that make sense? I feel you can be very strong [as a woman], but . . . you don’t need to be equal. You can be equal in another way. Does it make sense? It’s more like complementing. . . . I’m not for or against feminism. I never think of it. I have no association. I don’t face any problems with that in the office. We don’t have that here.
Hana points out a common critique of Western feminism, and strongly distances herself from those ideals. As a marketing manager for a major oil and gas company with a majority of male employees, Hana’s statement demonstrates the extent to which she claims not to be affected by gender dynamics in the workplace. The majority of other participants shared Hana’s sentiment. For example, Lamis, a 20 year-old designer, said of feminism, ‘As an Emirati woman, I don’t like it a lot’, and went on to explain why she believed the word referred to a woman who has to fight for her rights. Shamma, a 23 year-old visual artist, said that feminism, ‘sounds like a bad thing’. Sahar, a 21 year-old journalist, explained that many people call her a feminist; however, she stated that she would not call herself a feminist: ‘People keep saying that [I’m a feminist], but I wouldn’t’. Aisha, a 25 year-old writer, said, ‘I don’t like it. I don’t like the whole idea of women fighting for their rights. Honestly, we were born with our rights we shouldn’t be fighting for it. We have it’. Therefore, similar to other findings among young women in Australia and the UK (Baker; Stuart and Donaghue; McRobbie, ‘Top Girls?’) young Emirati women strongly distance themselves from their understanding of mainstream feminism as fighting for their rights, being equal to men, and having equal opportunity, even though they approve of the language of feminism as it is used in government documents about themselves.
This research has shown why young Emirati women are invested in the government’s portrayal of themselves, even though they do face limitations. Due to the Orientalist legacy, participants see their government’s portrayal of their rights and empowerment as important to show the West that they are not oppressed or backwards. Yet to say that they are ‘feminists’ would mean that they had needed to defy their government and fight for their rights, which has not been the case. To align with feminism, then, means that they did not have rights to begin with, and had to struggle to get it for themselves. This alternate reality would not help Emirati women prove that they were in fact cherished by their rulers who saw their potential. It would not help them prove that their religion and culture gives them their rights, rather than Western modernity. Therefore, Emirati women invest in these stories about themselves produced by the UAE government for its promised benefits and its ability to tell a different story to Western audiences about Arab women’s rights, freedoms and empowerment.
This article has explained the stories the UAE government tells itself and its citizens about young Emirati women’s empowerment. Female Emirati participants align with the subject positions offered by the UAE’s state-sponsored women’s empowerment agenda. The position afforded Emirati women, with all their lived complexity of roles and personal fulfilment, can be seen as part of Hollway’s ‘investment’. While the reward of greater social power and voice is offered, and to some extent given, this gendered subject position is also limiting. Due to the power and economic relations within the UAE, the promised positions do not become fully realised, and so must be negotiated for female participants to remain pleased with what has been offered, taken and embodied as their own ideas. Their investments are negotiated through received approval from patriarchal authority, the ability to have a voice in the public sphere and the perceived prestige afforded to serving as a symbol of Emirati modernity. Participants’ alignment with this discourse shows the ways in which ‘modern gender and national identities have developed together and reinforced each other’ (Sinha 324). Emirati female participants are aware of this alignment and the ways in which being empowered by the government allows them entry into, and a measure of power within, public space and modern discourses.
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