28 August 2021
On Emirati Women
As one of the youngest nations in the world, the United Arab Emirates has been at the forefront of envisioning radical growth and transformation. This change is vested in the people. Not only the people who famously occupy billboard spaces and poster boards, but whose creative and emotional labour often remains overlooked, globally, by economic endeavours. At the crux of the UAE’s state-making agenda, which honours the expansion of educational, employment and political opportunities, lies the grind and sweat of women. H.H. Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, known as the “Mother of the UAE” for her efforts towards supporting Emirati women, has announced the theme of Emirati Women’s Day 2021 to be “Women: Ambitions & Inspirations for Next 50 Years.”
As Vânia Carvalho Pinto stated in her book Nation-Building, State and the Genderframing of Women’s Rights in the United Arab Emirates (1971-2009), women as intellectuals, mothers, workers, and guardians of cultural values have played a central role in “the sustainability and self-definition of their country.” However, Emirati women have also challenged social norms within the nation’s state-building agenda, pushing the conventional boundaries of what it means to be Emirati while simultaneously defining womanhood for themselves. Across a wide spectrum of politicians, homemakers, academics, writers, and artists, some notable women’s work courageously calls for furthering inclusion and compassion within the nation’s socio-cultural fabric.
One of the most noteworthy Emirati academics who is revolutionising discourse on inclusion and belonging in the Gulf is Rana AlMutawa, a PhD candidate at Oxford University whose research focuses on national identity, citizenship, and ethnic diversity. The crux of her research challenges notions of authenticity, from unpacking the complex origins of the national dress to observing malls and cafés as everyday places of belonging. AlMutawa seeks to understand more clearly how meaning is cultivated and fostered in Gulf cities. By dismantling binary narratives of how one navigates urban spaces in the UAE, she carves a path to reconceptualise how one actively participates in surrounding environments and communities.
Excerpt from Rana's "Dubai Mall or Souq Naif? The Quest for ‘Authenticity’ and Social Distinction" paper, courtesy of Rana's Academia page
A still from Rana's online cultural majalis panel
Along the lines of dismantling binary narratives is the Syrian-Emirati filmmaker Amal Al Agroobi, distinguished for her short documentary film “Half Emirati,” in which she questions the notion of a pure Khaleeji lineage. In a film featuring several half Emiratis and shared intricacies of negotiating Gulf spaces, Al Agroobi sheds light on the multi-dimensionality of the Emirati identity. By complicating the monolithic myth of being Emirati, she compassionately redefines the national discourse on identity and belonging. In an interview, Al Agroobi notes, “I don’t think being Emirati means you have the passport. I don’t think that being Emirati means that I can speak Arabic in a Khaleeji accent...I think what Emirati means is that you would live and fight for this land.”
A still from Amal Al Agroobi's short film "Half Emirati"
A monumental space that honours the past lives of women in the UAE who have fought for national land is the Women’s Museum at Bait Al Banat, founded by Dr. Rafia Obaid Ghubash. The space explores different modes of knowledge production and creativity in which Emirati women partook, with a particular emphasis on women from the royal lineage. As Pinto covered in her book, “The wives of sheikhs were (and still are) very important in the affairs of the community, as women (and even men) may go to them in private and ask for advice or favours.” The museum pays tribute to the involvement of Emirati women in several public, political spheres, in which such involvement was witnessed as a symbol of national pride and progress.
Archival image of Emirati Women from the Women's Museum at Bait Al Banat
Building on the historical legacy of Emirati women in politics, the UAE currently has one of the highest representations of women in the parliamentary systems. The renowned female politician, Her Excellency Shamma Al Mazrui, is the youngest minister in the world. As the UAE Minister of State for Youth, she has worked effortlessly to expand opportunities for the next generation, with a particular focus on people of determination. Her commitment and dedication to the Emirati future remains unwavering: “We are a country that sets no limit or cap to the dreams of our young generation.”
Her Excellency Shamma Al Mazrui, Image Courtesy of Emirates News Agency
In parallel with the increasing percentage of young women in the political sphere, the UAE has also begun to witness a rise in youth-led, grassroots arts and journalistic communities. One of the pioneers in this movement is Fatima Al Jarman, an Emirati writer and the founding editor-in-chief of Unootha, a digital magazine and community for MENA women. The discourse arising from the platform urges conversations on a variety of stigmatised issues that are held with more care and complexity than what is afforded in the mainstream narrative. The digital magazine and community provides a safe space to introspect, reflect and reimagine collective healing.
A page from Unootha
The handful of female artists, intellectuals, politicians and community-builders featured in this piece actively challenge social norms surrounding what it means to be an Emirati woman. Through their work, they create spaces for inclusive and creative collaboration that actively challenge patriarchal agendas. On this day of celebration, it is vital to applaud their existence as resistance, alongside all Emirati women who deserve equal commemoration regardless of their professional orientation.
Lastly, as for any identity, there are people who remain included, excluded and somewhere on the peripheries of the label. On this day of celebration, it is also vital to acknowledge the female migrants and stateless Bedouins who are not included in the traditional definition of what it means to be an “Emirati woman” but, nonetheless, have played a foundational role in the formation and collective growth of the nation. May the 50th year of Emirati Women’s Day remind us that it is essential to celebrate women who go unseen in the layers of power hierarchies that crowd national discourse.
Header credit: Archival image of Emirati Women from the Women's Museum at Bait Al Banat
Lubnah Ansari dissects notions of personal and political questions with fervent curiosity. Using her multidisciplinary skills, the artist and researcher sheds light on the concept of making space for unsung stories with films on interfaith marriages in South Asia and the Gulf. Follow her on Instagram: @groovy_luby and Twitter: @AnsariLubnah