Gender and National Identity in the UAE


Different societies and countries have had unique gender relations, gender rights and national identity characteristics during different eras of their history. This uniqueness and diversity is a function of various factors including religion, history of a society, socio-political fundamentals, as well as unique societal cultural factors.

It is needless to mention that most societies in the West, Africa, America, and in the East have been largely patriarchal in the sense that the male gender tend to dominate the social, economic and political spheres of a society for a considerably long period of time (Moghadam, 1999).

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The female gender has largely been denied the right to take part in governance or to own property. Even in Western countries, which are largely the origins of our notions of democracy, citizenship started to take on a more all-encompassing framework of reference during the early 20th century when the right of adult universal suffrage was established (Moghadam, 1999).

In fact, in most societies, women were treated as property by men, whether fathers or husbands. The purpose of this essay is to assess how women in the UAE participate in building and maintaining an Emirati national identity. It also seeks to find out gender-specific discourses and practices that the state employs to interpolate women into nation-building process and how women appropriate or resist these gendered state practices.

How women in UAE participate in building and maintaining an Emirati identity

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) commonly known as The Emirates is a federation located in the southeast of the Arabian Peninsula (Archive editions 1994). It borders Saudi Arabia and Oman and shares sea borders with countries like Qatar, Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Kuwait (Archive editions, 1994).

It is called The Emirates since federal regions which include Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Umm al-Quwain, Fujairah and Ras al-Khaimah are governed by emirs. Abu Dhabi is the country’s capital and its center of industrial, political and cultural activities. UAE’s political organization is based on the country’s constitution, enacted in 1971. Islam is the national official religion while Arabic is the official language (Archive editions, 1994).

United Arab Emirates (UAE) is one of the Arab Gulf countries that have succeeded in embracing and institutionalizing a genuine sense of national identity and nationhood. According to Carreiras (2008), in the recent past, tribal arrangements have begun to fade away and state institutions are slowly taking their place.

As a result, ethnic and tribal conflicts are no longer common in most Third World countries, especially in Africa. Currently, UAE citizens are highly unified in a way that has never been witnessed in the history of the Emirates before.

One of the main contributing factors to this commendable socio-political trend has been the tremendous change in the country’s demographic structure which has been replaced by new cosmopolitan population. For instance, many people do not dwell traditionally in the same towns and villages, under the same roof, or in the same community as the older generations used to before national economic breakthrough following the discovery of oil which has culminated into rapid and enormous social change (Carreiras, 2008).

In particular, the younger Emiratis who make up the bigger portion of the ‘s population are more attached to a national identity as Emiratis as opposed to a tribal identity which was common with older generations before attainment of economic prosperity which have been critical in establishing a stable government and a calm social structure of the federation. In fact, in some emirates, ethnic or tribal attachment is nothing more than a mere last name (Carreiras, 2008).

However, it is important to note that being identified as UAE citizen does not necessarily imply that one must absolutely denounce or deny his or her tribal identity. Nevertheless, majority of the young people are fond of identifying themselves as Emiratis proudly without despising their tribal roots.

In fact, a considerable percentage of the UAE nationals perceive these two as being well-matched to each other and even manage to put together their national integrity with tribal idealism (Carreiras, 2008).The big question is given the conventional place of a woman in the UAE where Islam guides individuals and the society’s daily life, how do women take part in building and maintaining an Emirati national identity?

Even though the UAE is evidently trying to diversify her political organization and establish a particular level of equality that is fair in the eyes of the ordinary people who have been slowly embracing western values by shifting away from tribalism, religion, class, as well as race, gender inequality is still rampant (Carreiras, 2008).

This is an important issue that brings up the question of equal opportunity for both male and female genders within the UAE society. There is certainly an organizational relationship of inequality between men and women founded up on apparent sex differences in the national-identity formation process in the UAE. Like in most Middle East societies, UAE women have been accorded a second-class citizenship which has long been institutionalized (Moghadam, 1999).

This denies women an equal opportunity in the process of creating shared perceptions relating to members of the community, nation-state, heritage and national culture especially at the national and public levels mainly because women have not yet realized their political rights. According to Moghadam (1999), the problematic element of women’s citizenship rights arises partly from lack or underdevelopment of democratic institutions in the country.

However, it is to a large extent an outcome of inconsistency between the country’s constitution that give equal rights to both men and women and family laws which are exclusively based on the Sharia law that does not recognize equality between men and women in anything within an Islamic society.

Nevertheless, women take part in building and maintaining Emirati national identity through their natural roles in the biological birth of UAE nationals and tribal groups, socialization of the young whereby they pass up on their children the assignation of spreaders of culture and identifiers of national or ethnic differences (Moghadam, 1999).

They also participate in national-identity formation process through their representations which usually takes on a political importance. Moghadam (1999) points out those particular women images characterize and differentiate tribal communities, cultural projects or political groups.

Furthermore, women’s behavior and out ward look, as well as their different activities plays a significant role in establishing a county’s identity. For instance, in Islamic societies like UAE unveiled modern woman is a sign of modernity, development and progress while on the other hand veiled woman symbolizes legitimacy, cultural renewal and societal potency to give rise to new ethnic or national group.

Gender-specific discourses and practices that the state employs to interpolate women in nation-building process

As mentioned earlier, UAE government is slowly moving away from the conventional formations of class, religion and tribe up on which her political system has operated for a considerable period of time.

It is trying to establish a certain level of equality, attain a certain level of democracy and realize certain legitimacy objectives by allowing more and more women and men to participate in national politics. Both men and women are gradually introduced to their political entitlements.

The state is including women in the national-building process by randomly choosing women voters and political contestants through governors of individual emirates. Some female, as well as male appointees are entirely selected by state officials (Carreiras, 2008).

Surprisingly however, majority of the appointed members of the Federal National Assembly Council (FNAC) both men and women are ordinary average members of the society. In other words, they were not chosen on basis of their economic background, affiliation to a given tribe, or their last names but on citizenship basis (Carreiras, 2008).

In the recent past, women have been resisting gender based state practices mainly through women’s organizations which have been vocal in agitating for equal political, social, economic and cultural rights for women. Women organizations have been challenging their institutionalized second-class citizenship (Moghadam, 1999; Hasso, 2010; Joseph, 2010).

These organizations are generally campaigning against women’s state declared position in the private sphere and men’s control of the public realm. According to Moghadam (1999), women’s organizations have particularly been calling for modern transformation of family laws which are currently abusive and discriminative to women, illegalization of domestic violence, establishing bigger access to employment and participation in governance and women’s right to hold their own nationality and to carry it down to their children.

These organizations have also been drawing attention to the current family laws which are incompatible with universal standards of equality and nondiscrimination enshrined in the international laws like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Moghadam, 1999; Joseph, 2010).

Reference List

Archive Editions. (1994). The UAE: Arabian geopolitics. Cambridge: Archive Editions.

Carreiras, H. (2008). Women in the military and in armed conflict. VS Verlag.

Hasso, F. (2010). Consuming Desires: Family Crisis and the State in the Middle East. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press

Joseph, S. (2007). Encyclopedia of women and Islamic cultures. Tokyo: Brill.

Moghadam, V. M. (1999). Gender, National Identity and Citizenship: Reflections on the

Middle East. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 14(199), 137-157


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