Excerpt: Nation-Building, State and the Genderframing of Women’s Rights in the United Arab Emirates (1971–2009)




Published by Ithaca Press


Ithaca Press is an imprint of Garnet Publishing Ltd.

Copyright © Vânia Carvalho Pinto, 2012

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

First Edition 2012

ISBN: 978086372432


Nation-Building, State and the Genderframing of Women’s Rights in the United Arab Emirates (1971–2009) by Vânia Carvalho PintoList of Tables vii

Note on Transliteration x

Acknowledgements xi

Introduction xiii

1 Genderframing as a State Strategy: Historical Background and Theoretical Framework

1.1. Historical background

1.2. The genderframing perspective 4

2 Definition of the Problem: Building a New Nation – How and Why to Include Women (1971–Early 1980s) 15

2.1. Fostering loyalty and overcoming localism: the overall tasks for the emerging state 15

2.2. Assessment of the situation of women: traditional attitudes and their socio-economic status 19

2.3. Why women? 22

2.4. The improvement of women’s status as a symbol of national progress 25

2.5. Summary 29

3 The Making and Promotion of the Genderframe (1971–Early 1980s) 35

3.1. Envisaged solutions to the problem of including women 35

3.2. Sponsoring female education 40

3.3. Becoming working women for the sake of the nation 44

3.4. Channelling the genderframe into society: the role of the UAE women’s associations 50

3.5. Summary 55

4 Re-signifying Religion and Culture: The Changed Environment (Late 1970s–2009) 61

4.1. Islamization, cultural anxieties, and the Emirati society’s self-questioning 61

4.2. Cultural anxieties I: tradition and UAE women’s roles 65

4.3. Cultural anxieties II: raising true citizens 69

4.4. Cultural anxieties III: UAE women and the Emiratization policy 72

4.5. Summary 77

5 Culture Re-signified: Contemporary Challenges (Late 1990s–2009)

5.1. Pursuing new meanings I: UAE women and leadership

5.2. Pursuing new meanings II: the road to political and decision-making positions

5.3. Pursuing new meanings III: UAE women as political officials

5.4. Whither genderframe and the challenges for the next generation?

5.5. Summary

6 A Genderframe Transformation? Concluding Remarks



Articles from newspapers and magazines

official documents

Grey literature: miscellaneous



Table 1: The Genderframing Criteria

Table 2: Employment of Emirati Women in Government Ministries

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Note on Transliteration

The transliteration of Arabic terms into English has generally followed the recommendations of the International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies. Adjustments were made in some cases so as to facilitate reading. They include the elimination of diacritical marks, and the favouring of certain spellings of words whose usage became more common in specialized English language literature. It includes, for example, the spelling form ‘Sheikh’ instead of ‘Shaykh’. The spelling of names as they appeared in printed and online materials was maintained so as to keep accuracy in the referencing of the sources.

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This work was possible thanks to the generous support of several institutions. In Germany, the scholarship provided by the University of Hildesheim has allowed for the timely completion of this dissertation, and my thanks also to the Mercator Foundation for the three-month research fellowship that allowed me to participate in the Humanism Project that was directed by Jörn Rüsen.

In the United Kingdom (UK), I thank the financial support of the Society for Arabian Studies and of the Prince al-Waleed scholarship for fieldwork research awarded by the University of Exeter where I first began my PhD.

In Portugal my thanks go to the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian for the awarding of a short-term fellowship to aid in field research. 

In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a special thanks to the Supreme Council for Family Affairs, and especially to Her Highness Sheikha Jawaher bint Mohammed al-Qasimi, whose generous support enabled me to stay in the country for a long period of time in order to pursue this project.

In Germany, I thank my former colleagues at the Graduate School on Interculturality, Education, and Aesthetics of the University of Hildesheim for having been valuable sparring partners in the discussion of many of the ideas in this dissertation. Thanks are also due to the Graduate School of the Humanism Project hosted at the Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut in Essen, which also provided an encouraging forum for discussion.

As is usual in this kind of work, I have run up many debts in the pursuance of this research. Thanks are due to my interviewees, who had the patience and goodwill to sit with me, sometimes for hours; this work would not have been possible without them. I especially thank Dr Amina Al-Mazrouqi at the University of Sharjah for her invaluable assistance.

To my friends in the UAE, Portugal, the UK, and in Germany, thank you for having accompanied me throughout this very long and often bumpy road. Special gratitude is owed to my dear friend Mahra Salim, who believed in my work from the very beginning. My heartfelt thanks also go to Noor, whose interest and support in this project made it possible, and to Noura Nouman, who had the patience and extreme goodwill to put up with my never-ending questions for nearly two years. I thank them a lot.

Lise and Andrea have been truly wonderful friends throughout the years. Thanks also to Nadje al-Ali, who first introduced me to the field of Middle East gender at the University of Exeter, and also Claudia Derich, my PhD supervisor at the University of Hildesheim. 

Claudia was a fantastic and understanding mentor. Her guidance was crucial in ‘navigating’ through the intricacies of building a sustainable argument and writing a dissertation. I thank her enormously. Wendy Smith was, throughout the writing process, a very valuable reader and her comments and suggestions have been greatly appreciated.

Last but not least, my family, my parents Luis and Maria, my brother Pedro and my husband Arthur. Their love and unshakable belief in my ability to pursue and finish this work has sustained me throughout the years. This work is dedicated to them.

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The extensive changes to Emirati women’s traditional rights and roles have been one of the most visible transformations taking place in the UAE throughout its almost forty years of modern history. In fact, the UAE government has recently described ‘the evolution and growing prominence of Emirati women as partners and contributors (. . .) [to the country’s] nation-building process’ as the development that perhaps best illustrates the country’s achievements. This assessment is complemented by the UAE state’s declared goal that, through example, it aims ‘to establish a new benchmark for gender empowerment in the region’.1

These official statements open up very interesting lines of enquiry as regards the UAE state’s gender policy, which can be summarized as follows. Exactly how have Emirati women contributed to the country’s nation-building process? And why has the state so visibly committed itself to the cause of the expansion of women’s rights? In searching for clues that can aid in answering both questions, this book will look into the expansion of educational, employment and political opportunities for women from the perspective of the Emirati nation-building process. In order to do so, it should be acknowledged from the outset that general discussions about women’s rights in the Arab world or about Muslim women elsewhere are usually quite contentious. The controversies surrounding these matters are usually associated with issues such as the meaning of emancipation, the role of the veil, and the often-assumed ‘oppressive’ traits of the Islamic religion. This is typically because the dominant image of a Muslim woman in the popular mind is that of a veiled and secluded female, trapped within the repressive webs of patriarchy and religion.2 one of the many examples that can illustrate the prevalence of such an interpretation is former president Sarkozy’s 2009 speech to the French Parliament in which he railed against the ‘burka’ (Muslim female overgarment). He not only claimed that the ‘burka’ constituted a ‘sign of [female] subservience’, but also stated that its use would ‘not be welcomed’ in French territory.3 Indeed, Sarkozy’s statements intended to show that the use of the ‘burka’ should be seen as more than ‘just’ a mark of female oppression; in fact, his comments portrayed it as a hallmark of negative nationhood, representing all that France, as a nation, is supposedly not, i.e. gender prejudiced.

These evident lines of intersection between Islam, nation and gender are very much discussed not only in the public but also in the academic debate. This is so because the Islamic religion continues to be used as a frame of reference within which to understand the status of Muslim women. However, contrary to what is usually conveyed in the public debate, academic discussions strongly emphasize that Islam, as a religion and as a system of social practices, is not monolithic. Rather, it is lived differently over time and space, and it is deeply enmeshed in local traditions and cultural practices – something that is not readily acknowledged in public debate.4 Therefore, the status of women should not be examined in terms of an undifferentiated Islam and absolute dichotomies of freedom v. oppression; instead the focus of enquiry should be turned into how religion may influence policies and national projects within specific states, particularly in terms of providing motives and programmes for political action.5 This is even more so within the context of nation-building processes, as there is a wider scope for the redefinition and re-signification of ideas within the highly fluid terrain that is nation-building. Hence, the elements that are chosen to set a given nation apart from others reflect the historically specific challenges for self-definition in which the former is enmeshed. The aforementioned case in France illustrates that point, and it similarly shows how nation-building is not exclusive to new nations, but that it unfolds also in consolidated countries.

Nevertheless, the concept of nation-building has been more intensely applied in contexts of conflict and reconstruction; in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, for example.6 Within these settings, and in newly created nations more generally, the tasks that the state, as the promoter of the idea of national identity and architect of a new country, must engage in are far greater. This is so because, in addition to the building up of a functional state apparatus and the creation of a national society, there is also the important challenge of devising a unifying and persuasive ideology.7

Accordingly, in order to generate a sense of belonging and of community among disparate groups, the state must promote an idea of national cohesion that possesses far greater appeal than the idea of separation in a divided state. For the former to take root, it is required that government and people alike perceive that ‘seeing themselves collectively as a nation will result in a good future for all those involved’.8 As such, in order to achieve this goal, the state has to compete for ideational primacy with alternative ideas of nation espoused by other civil society actors.9 The tension resulting from the struggle over meanings usually provides a fertile field for the recasting of gender roles.10

Examples of these transformations are to be found in a variety of countries, but perhaps two of the most emblematic cases of such transfiguration in Muslim-majority countries are the Iranian and Turkish cases. In Iran, the gender policies that emerged in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution were intended to signify a return to cultural and religious values that were understood to have been tampered with by the so-called corrupt policies of the shah. These latter were found to have reached their zenith in the perceived irreligious changes to the status of women. Thus, the symbol of the Islamic Revolution was the reversal of nearly all the advances hitherto made in the position of women, like the abrogation of the Family Protection Law, the closing down of several professions to women, and the enforcing of compulsory veiling.11 In Turkey, the situation was the reverse. When the Turkish republic was established in 1923, emancipating women (through the right to vote, awarding equal rights in marriage, etc.), and transforming them into the secular and progressive symbols of the new nation, was the way favoured to weaken existing bonds to the ottoman Empire. By targeting the very core of society – the family and its organization – it was expected that these changes would ripple throughout the nation and give rise to a modern society fit to live in an equally modern state.12 These cases and many others across the Middle Eastern and South Asian region show that the actual configurations of gender ideologies within a given country are deeply enmeshed within the shifting and fractured terrain within which a new nation is built.13 Thus, the ways women’s roles are represented in public and political discourse, the scope of rights they are able to muster, as well as the degree of participation they enjoy in their respective societies, become reflections of those processes.14

This book attempts to contribute to the study of the intersection of gender and nation-building in Gulf countries by means of a case study focusing on the UAE. There are several reasons that render this case worthwhile of academic examination: first, and on a more general level, as a political union the UAE stands as an example of longevity and stability in the Arab world. It still retains its traditional polity – a tribal hereditary monarchy – even though many political scientists foresaw its demise as a result of fast-paced modernization.15 Thus, the UAE remains, to date, the only successful experience of political union in the Arab world.

Second, nation-building has probably been the Emirati state’s most salient project to date. Attempts at creating a national identity have been ongoing in various forms since the beginnings of the country. From calls for the population to work for the sake of the nation, to efforts at fostering appreciation for traditional culture and the recent devising of ‘empowerment’ strategies for the local population, the Emirati state has, throughout the years, deliberately sought to revitalize society through the creation and reinforcement of the country’s national identity. 

Third, the UAE government has made the expansion of women’s rights a priority and an integral part of its development strategy since the very foundation of the country. Indeed, the early 1970s were a particularly inhospitable time for ideas of female education and employment, as these were generally seen as shameful and sometimes irreligious. Given the early dissimilarity between the country’s planned gender strategy and the dominant popular views on the topic, to investigate the reasons why the state has made the expansion of women’s rights a central vector of action certainly constitutes an interesting and fertile terrain for analytical examination.

Fourth, a case study on the politics of gender in the UAE is long overdue, as published works on this subject matter and on women in other Gulf countries in general remain scant in number. Other countries such as Egypt, Iran, and now Iraq have received the most attention, as these were more open to foreign researchers, but also perhaps due to the mediatism of their revolutionary and fractured politics. The Gulf States as largely stable countries (despite the unrest of the last months) sharing many historical, social and economic attributes, have, for the reasons above, been less prone to individualized studies. The few studies that have been undertaken have generally focused on Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the first due to the state’s religiously conservative gender interpretations,16 and the second because of its political liveliness, exemplified by Kuwaiti women’s protracted fight for the right to vote, and their recent electoral successes.17

As regards the topic of gender in the UAE, studies have been limited so far. For a long time, there were only two published English-language books on the subject, produced almost thirty years apart. The first was Linda Soffan’s 1980 general assessment of the changing status of Emirati women upon the 1971 independence; and the other was Wanda Krause’s 2008 study of gender and civil society in the country. Recently, two books on life stories of Emirati women have been published, one focused on female leadership and the other on generational change.18 There are some more unpublished works, usually PhD dissertations from primarily English and American universities, with Maha Khatib’s (1996) and Suad al-oraimi’s (2004) dissertations meriting particular reference. In addition to these works, there are some assorted articles focusing on women in the UAE or in the Gulf more generally, but there is still overall a tendency for description and generalization rather than in-depth analysis of specific cases.19

The interpretation I offer in this work as regards the UAE state’s gender policy has as a starting point two separate insights provided by both al-oraimi and Krause. These authors have defined the country’s stance towards women as a ‘state project’ and a ‘state strategy’, respectively. While al-oraimi has argued that the rights of Emirati women have been defined along ‘developmental’ lines, so as to ensure that the education and productive work of women could contribute to the country’s economic and social development,20 Krause has gone further by stating that the expansion of female educational rights in the UAE has served ‘unity, identity building and stability’, and that women were ‘directed to use the tools that the state has provided them to contribute to the project of identity building and internal stability’.21 Since these ideas fall outside the scope of their works, unfortunately neither of them develops them further. I will depart from their insights and attempt to show how Emirati women have been an indelible part of the process of nation-building in their country.

The argument unfolds through five chapters, each (with the exception of the first, which is more theoretical) falling within a specific time frame. The starting year is 1971, the year the UAE state was founded, and the analysis finishes in 2009.22 These temporal frames are not clear-cut since the phenomena under study necessarily overlap and are not prone to easy chronological delimitation. Chapter 1 begins with a brief historical introduction to the formation of the UAE in addition to a short discussion of the concepts of Islam, tribe, modernization and development that will serve as a backdrop to the analysis. It subsequently introduces the theoretical framework utilized throughout the book.

Chapter 2 (from 1971 to the early 1980s) identifies the overall nation-building tasks for the newly created state, and locates women as central players in the fulfilment of those tasks. The argument is structured around the question of why it was important to incorporate women within the nation-building process, whereas Chapter 3 focuses on how to accomplish that. Chapter 4 (from the late 1970s until 2009) examines both the wave of renewed interest in the religious and indigenous roots of national culture that began sweeping the country since the late 1970s, and the policy of Emiratization. Both will be examined in their gender dimensions. Chapter 5 (from the late 1990s until 2009) deals with more recent gender policy challenges such as the promotion of female leadership and of women’s political participation. The book finishes with a summing-up of the argument and with the identification of trends for the future. It also shows the various manners by which women have been selectively incorporated into the Emirati nation-building process, and how it has developed in tandem with the history of the Emirati state and reflected some of its crucial moments.

The work here presented is my own interpretation of events and dynamics, and I am aware that it raises many questions and that I leave quite a few unanswered. It is not an easy task to assess nearly forty years of state policy, and some omissions and generalizations are made out of necessity. My intention was to write an intensive case study of the UAE, and even though some parallelisms are drawn with similar cases, I avoid as much as possible ‘diluting’ the Emirati case within the regional discussion. 

All in all, I hope that this work opens up some more avenues for subsequent analysis. It goes without saying that the ideas expressed here are my own and in no way reflect those of my funding bodies.

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1 UAE Government (Ministry of State for Federal National Council Affairs), 2008, ‘Women in the United Arab Emirates: A Portrait of Progress’.

2 Esposito 2001: 9–10; ottaway 2004: 4.

BBC News, 22.06.2009, ‘Sarkozy Speaks out against Burka’.

4 al-Ali 2003: 218; Moghadam 2008: 425–426.

5 owen 2004: 154; Kandiyoti 1991a: 1–21.

6 See Hippler 2005: 3–4; Derichs 2004: 18–19.

7 Hippler 2005: 7–9.

8 Derichs 2005: 42.

9 Derichs 1999: 4.

10 See Kandiyoti 1991b: 429–443, for a discussion of how nation-building processes affect the extension of citizenship rights to women in postcolonial societies.

11 Paidar 1995.

12 Kandiyoti 1991c: 22–47.

13 For specific case studies, see Moghadam 1994; Jayawardena 1994.

14 See Kandiyoti 1991a: 1–21; Moghadam 2008: 425–443.

15 See Davidson 2005: 66–118; Gause III 2000: 167–186 for discussions.

16 See Doumato 2003; Altorki 1986.

17 See Rizzo 2005; al-Mughni 2001; Tétreault and al-Ghanim 2009.

18 on leadership see Augsburg et al. 2009; and on generational changes see Bristol-Rhys


19 See, e.g., al-Kazi 2008: 171–180; Briegel and Zivkovic 2008: 87–99.

20 al-oraimi 2004: 69.

21 Krause 2008: 41, 43.

22 This work was completed in 2009 and as such it does not cover recent events of the Arab Spring. There was some update of sources, but the writing of the text was unchanged.

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1 - Genderframing as a State Strategy: Historical Background and Theoretical Framework

1.1. Historical background

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The United Arab Emirates (UAE) was fashioned out of the federal union of seven regions: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ras al-Khaimah (RAK), Ajman, Umm al-Qaiwain (UAQ), Sharjah, and Fujairah. These regions were, before 1971, known as Trucial States or Coastal oman, so denominated because they had entered into ‘truce’ agreements with the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century. As a result of those treaties, Britain became the dominating power over the region for two hundred years, until its retreat in 1971. Britain’s role was essentially confined to maintaining peace at sea so as to protect Indian trade routes, with small intervention in the internal affairs of the tribes, apart from settling disputes. The colonial government, therefore, made very little effort to improve the living conditions of the population that inhabited the region.1

Trucial society was tribally organized, with the tribe serving as a cultural and ethnic frame of reference for the individual. It provided the people with a sense of identity and physical security against a hostile desert environment.2 Tribes were usually part of larger political structures of similar tribes, whose mode of organization was based on patrilineal descent.3 The existence and unity of the tribe was expressed in terms of common ancestry, and a shared belief as regards the group’s honour. Honour belonged to an individual through his or her membership of a larger whole, which obliged its members to help each other in times of need, to avenge the harm or killing of a family member, and to sacrifice him or herself for the good of the collective. Women in tribal society were also part of that collective. As wives, daughters, sisters and mothers they were under the protection of men, to whose private life they belonged, and their behaviour was reflected in male honour. Enforcing this principle required that females be modestly secluded from the outside world and avoid contact with unrelated men. As such, responsibility for dealing with the outside world lay formally with men.4

The numerically superior tribe or tribal confederation provided the ruling family, from which a semi-hereditary ruler was chosen on the basis of the venerated qualities of hospitality, bravery and honesty. He would become the paramount tribal chief to whom tribal heads in the state looked for support in exchange for loyalty. Loyalty was often granted to the ruler as a person, not to the rulership position itself. He was expected to exert his authority through the application of Islamic law and custom-honoured practices of consultation with a selected few, whose anointment was determined by an intertwining of considerations as regards tribal origin and intertribal and interclan politics. This ‘ascriptive elitism’ and the prestige that came with it were also incorporated into the modern apparatus of the Emirati state, thus restricting political participation to a selected few families at the top of the social scale.5

As regards economic organization, desert conditions only allowed for the eking out of a subsistence living. The main sources of livelihood were goat, sheep and camel breeding, agriculture (mostly dependent on artificial irrigation), fishing, trade by camel and ship, pearling, and crafts limited to the raw materials available. Every group or individual usually participated in several economic activities, and the conscious maintenance of strong kinship ties allowed for the sharing of economic activities between related or friendly groups. Hence, the population had experienced little contact with the amenities of modern life and had been relatively insulated from external changes by a life of poverty and deprivation.6 The unforgiving geographical conditions and the relatively small population have contributed much to the emphasis on and retention of tribal elements within local culture.7

Economic activity also differed according to the place where people were located; either in the desert, by the sea or in the mountains. The Bedouins roamed the desert while the settled people lived in coastal towns and villages. Settled life depended on trading in fish and pearls, while husbandry and hunting were the main desert activities.8

The type of economic activity pursued, together with tribal origin, determined the existing social structure. The ruling family, from which the supreme chief or uppermost sheikh originated, along with other sheikhly families and merchants constituted the elite of traditional society, and the exercisers of economic and political power.9 Due to existing geographical conditions, the rulers had difficulties in exercising control over more remote areas. They thus often delegated authority to local representatives in distant provinces. The problem with this system was that placing powerful relatives into key positions tended to lead to the creation of parallel states. With the beginning of the oil era, the region’s segmentary politics were considerably reduced; construction of roads and the advance of communications brought faraway regions much more into the range of a ruler’s influence. In addition, it enabled the leaders to distribute ‘consolation prizes’, such as posts in the modern state apparatus, including positions in government ministries, bureaucracies, oil companies, armed forces and the like. These arrangements ensured that powerful family members and their associates had a stake in the maintenance of the status quo, thus precluding the strong political instability that had characterized Trucial politics.10 Even today tribal organization is still an important element in the social, political and economic stratification of the new state, especially as it remains a relevant factor for access not only to the leadership, but also to employment in high positions.

In tandem with tribal values, a further relevant component of people’s lives was (and still is) the Islamic religion. According to archaeological evidence, Islam is thought to have come to the Arabian Peninsula between the fourth and seventh centuries CE,11 and at the turn of the twentieth century the population was entirely Muslim and predominantly Sunni. Since Islam constituted the very basis of life both public and private, there was homogeneity of religious practice, and the application of peoples’ understanding of the Qur’an and religious law came quite naturally. Since there was no formally trained judge in Islamic affairs, and learned men acquired information from a very limited number of written sources besides the Qur’an, arguments about finer points of Islamic jurisprudence did not exist. Each community accepted most readily the judgments that were in conformity with earlier judgments in identical or similar cases. Despite lifestyle differences based on the geographical location of the communities (desert, seaside or mountains), they were all moulded by the same Islamic system of life.12

This was the existing social, political and economic structure of the region when oil was discovered in the late 1960s. These resources were regarded as a golden opportunity to improve the living conditions of an overwhelmingly poor population. Therefore, it is no wonder that ideas of social modernization and economic development acquired wide currency in the years following the creation of the state. There was haste in abandoning a life of deprivation to the point that those rulers who were perceived as not taking full advantage of ‘God’s blessings’ (meaning the availability of resources) were removed from their positions. That was the case with Sheikh Shakhbut, deposed in 1966 from the Abu Dhabi rulership.13 Using the newly acquired wealth for the good of the community was as much a humanitarian as a political imperative.14

The prevalence of this perspective led, in the early years of federation, to most of the decision-makers viewing the country as being in urgent need of a ‘blanket’ treatment for fast material and social development.15 Thus, within the early Emirati context, development was considered as a multi-faceted process, involving political, economic, social and cultural dimensions at the levels of the individual and society as a whole,16 even though it later became more closely associated with economic growth.

Social modernization of the population was viewed as crucial to the building of a modern state, as the sustainability of the latter was seen to be largely dependent on the extent to which a poor, tribal and mobile population could sedentarize, adjust to a modern lifestyle and see the state as the undivided focus of individual loyalty.

Even if economically and socially there was an overall will to change, the same urgency did not apply to the political structures of the Trucial States. These were largely kept in place, and the hereditary rulers from the seven regions continued to head their constituencies. The UAE thus remained a family state, characterized by the coexistence of federal and emirate-level political structures.

Having briefly presented the economic, social and political conditions that led to the constitution of the UAE, it is now time to present the theoretical framework that will be used throughout this book.

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1.2. The genderframing perspective17

The analytical departure point for this analysis is the adoption of the perspective that there is no easy or direct link between any state’s ‘offer of rights’ to its citizens, and the latter’s capacity and/or willingness to take advantage of them. This insight is even more fitting when talking about Arab women and the expansion of their rights. In many countries of the Middle East and North Africa, as many excellent collections have demonstrated, the education, employment and political participation of women have never really been that easily accepted by their own societies.18

Why should it be different in the UAE? This was a poor, nomadic, tribal society, accustomed to the rigours of economic survival, which paid little attention to female issues. Plus, the new female roles that were being proposed were generally considered particularly problematic from the point of view of dominant gender norms and traditions. That being the case, how are we to explain (some) women’s participation in activities that a number of people (including their own families and other women) considered potentially harmful honour-wise? And given the ‘societal feeling’ about this matter, why should gender issues feature so centrally in the early nation-building efforts of the government? In sum, it is necessary to explain why the government has engaged itself in this matter and why some women have mobilized whereas others have not.

I suggest that both issues can be tackled by resorting to two interrelated concepts: that of ‘genderframing’, a verb denoting the idea of a process, and that of ‘genderframe’, a noun referring to a mental interpretative structure. Both derive from the concepts of ‘framing’ and ‘frame’ in the formulation proposed by David Snow and Robert Benford (1986) in social movements research.

The concept of ‘frame’ was first utilized in the psychology of communication, and imported into sociology by Erving Goffman, as a means to explain the microsociology of everyday interactions and communicative acts. He defined frame as a ‘schemata of interpretation’ that enables individuals ‘to locate, perceive, identify, and label’ occurrences within their life space and the world at large.19 They are thus interpretative mental structures that the individual uses to evaluate reality and act accordingly. In the 1980s, elaborating on Goffman’s approach, a group of social movement researchers including Snow and Benford advanced the concept of ‘framing’, a theoretical tool whose aim was to pay renewed attention to ideational elements as a means to explain processes of micromobilization in social movements. According to the authors, then-existing perspectives such as the new social movements approach and resource mobilization theory had tended to gloss over the issue of individual event interpretation, hence establishing a direct connection between events and the meanings people attach to them.20 Such a perspective had, in their opinion, led to the overlooking of crucial questions such as why some people mobilize and others do not, as well as failed to account for variations of personal engagement in a movement across an individual’s lifetime.21 

Seeking to address these issues, Snow and Benford suggested that the ways movements produced and assembled interpretative packages as regards certain events or problems provide significant clues as regards the successes or failures of social movements, mobilization-and participation-wise.22 ‘Framing’ thus refers to the ‘signifying work’ in which such leaders engage, by which ‘relevant events and conditions’ are displayed ‘in ways that (. . .) intend to mobilize potential adherents and constituents, to garner bystander support and to demobilize antagonists’.23

The process of framing entails looking for ideational elements within the cultural universe of the target group (values, beliefs, ideologies and the like) that can present the movement in ways that may lead to successful mobilization and participation.24 The process of defining and presenting a given issue will depend on the extent to which the target audience sees that explanation as meaningful and plausible. For example, in tackling the issue of nuclear threat, the success of the explanation offered largely relies on the values that inform perceptions of the target audience. These will vary greatly depending on the intended audience; for example, whether they are pacificists, environmentalists, or of any other persuasion.25

From the example above, it emerges that framing is not only historically specific but also the product of larger contexts.26 This means that the process of framing, in order to remain successful, must necessarily adapt to changes within society. Such a perspective entails a dynamic view of culture that, for the purposes of this research, is best understood as an ‘ensemble’ of elements, a ‘tool kit’ of ‘symbols, stories, rituals, and world views’, which people may use in varying configurations to solve different kinds of problems.27 These elements constitute the cultural resource base from which new cultural elements are fashioned, as well as the lens through which framings are interpreted and evaluated.28 As a result and throughout this active interpretative process, new elements are added and others fall from the cultural stock, thus rendering culture a shifting field of meanings.29

The analytical gains that can be obtained from the application of this approach have made the concepts of ‘frame’ and ‘framing’ quite fashionable within social sciences. References to it, either for more analytical or for descriptive purposes, can be found in a variety of disciplines, such as political science.30 Within this broad area, these concepts were found to be particularly useful in public policy scholarship, for they aid in explaining practice patterns that resist other forms of analysis, such as ‘the move from diffuse worries to actionable beliefs’.31

A recent and innovative application of the framing approach to the context of a state’s policy-making strategies has been proposed by Claudia Derichs in her analysis of the nation-building process of the Malaysian state.32 At the core of her analysis is the insight that the idea of nation and of national identity romoted by the state ‘is not something that grows naturally, but rather something that is strategically planned, defined, and produced’.33 This is a perspective that can be equally applied to the ways the state has constructed gender relations.

Following Derichs’ cue, and based on the framing approach, the present work suggests that in order to achieve the desired goals of educational expansion, professional development and political participation of females, the Emirati state has created a genderframe surrounding these areas of policy-making. I suggest that the former was built by selecting elements from the extant cultural stock and rearticulating them in ways that could aid in the popular legitimation of these policies.34 It should be noted that the Emirati genderframe exists within conditions of self-censorship and a limited tradition of popular mobilization. For these reasons, and since development has been state-directed, women have tended to organize along permissible state lines and have used the genderframe as a means to advance and legitimate their rights.35 In addition, it should be borne in mind that Emirati society usually shies away from radical means to express discontent, and generally advocates the peaceful expression of grievances to the sheikhs (or sheikhas) through traditional channels. This means that, all factors combined, there is little space for alternative and competing public genderframes to rival that of the state, even though they do exist and are discussed at more private levels. Considering this setting, and for the purposes of this book, the analysis here presented sets aside private or semi-private competing genderframes, but acknowledges them implicitly to the extent that they are reflected in the resonance and credibility effects produced by the official genderframe.

Therefore, the advantages of using this theoretical framework lie precisely in the encompassing of these various perspectives in terms of state–society interactions and female agency in the configuring of gender-related state action. Since the framing approach assumes the dynamic and evolving character of culture, its use aids in bypassing problems of essentialization as regards the role of Islam, and the dichotomy of tradition v. modernity.36 This is so because religion and ideas derived from these frameworks are used as ‘materials’ for the framing activity, whose articulation is subject to historical and strategic interpretation.

Moreover, the framing approach is not culturally specific, and as such it can be applied to other case studies so as to highlight the range of political tasks, requirements, and challenges faced by a state in its policy-planning and policy-formulation in general,37 and as regards the integration of women in its nation-building process in particular.

Applying this insight to the case at hand, the analytical scope expands from the movement to the nation, where a strategic actor (the state) attempts to convince a larger group of individuals (the population) to believe and participate in something.38 In this case, the aim is for the population to accept and allow female participation in the policies proposed by the state (of education, employment and political engagement), and regard it as an indelible part of the construction of the nation.

Genderframing thus refers to a dynamic and interactive process between the state and its population, through which meanings associated with women-related policies can be symbolically reworked and presented in novel ways. The genderframing activity gives rise to the construction of a genderframe, which is a collective framework of interpretation that provides the population with favourable guidelines with which to evaluate those policies.

The analysis here presented will develop at two levels: the first is the investigation of the Emirati state’s strategic action in the creation of and subsequent alterations to the genderframe; the second is the examination of the resonance and credibility that the latter elicited in the target group– society in general and UAE women in particular. Both levels of analysis are intertwined and dealt with in tandem throughout the book. 

The terms ‘genderframe’ and ‘genderframing’ were chosen for this analysis so as to underscore the careful articulation of symbolic elements which, I suggest, were essential to render extensive changes to women’s traditional roles as not only necessary but also desirable. While it is true that this work focuses exclusively on the expansion of women’s rights, the adding of the word ‘gender’ to the nomenclature of the analytical tools here utilized highlights that the Emirati state, by seeking to expand women’s roles beyond those of mother and wife, has also simultaneously altered, unwittingly or intentionally, cultural constructions governing gender relations. For example, while traditional female roles determined that family should merit women’s undivided attention, by advancing paid employment for women the state has generated perceptions that men should expect their wives to also devote their time and energies to enterprises outside of the domestic realm.

The successful genderframing of the changing status of women implied a connection with ideas that all could understand and relate to, so as not only to impel women to take advantage of the opportunities put forward by the government, but also to incite their families to accept it. Genderframing was thus based on a highly dialectical connection not only with beliefs and values – such as dedication to one’s family and being a good Muslim – but also with emerging ideas and wishes. These included, for example, in the early decades of the federation, a general will to modernize and to improve life conditions, or education as a factor in the betterment of a woman’s marriage prospects.

This perspective will be structured and operationalized by resorting to three sets of interrelated criteria that will be applied to the case at hand.39 Even though they overlap in analytical terms, this approach will allow for the organization of the empirical phenomena under examination, instead of merely describing them, and permit the ascertaining of why certain ideas, and not others, were proposed at specific historical junctures.40

The three sets of criteria are (a) the core framing tasks that the strategic actor (the UAE state) must perform in order to construct a genderframe; (b) the benchmarks that allow for the examination of the resonance and credibility that the genderframe has vis-à-vis the target group (i.e. Emirati society in general, and women in particular); and (c) the types of deliberate actions that the strategic actor can undertake in order to alter the genderframe. These three groups will be described below:

(a) The first group concerns the core framing tasks that the state must perform in order to construct a successful genderframe. The first is a diagnostic framing. In this case-study, this task is divided into a diagnostic assessment of the nation-building challenges in general upon the 1971 independence; and a diagnostic genderframing that focuses on an evaluation of the situation of women. In the latter, women are singled out as key players in the nation-building process, their situation and needs appraised, their problems identified. The second task within the genderframing analysis is the devising of a prognostic genderframing for action that consists in the articulation of strategies to solving the problems that were diagnosed beforehand. The third and final task is the devising of a motivational genderframe. This entails the generation of rationales and incentives to solve the problems identified in the diagnostic genderframing.

(b) Having constructed a genderframe, it is necessary to assess how meaningful this articulation is to the target audience by resorting to the second depicted group of criteria: credibility and salience. Within the larger credibility criterion, there is a further analytical subset encompassing the consistency of the genderframe, its empirical credibility and the credibility of the frame articulators. Consistency refers to popular perceptions as regards the logical inner articulation of the genderframe, i.e. whether its ensemble of elements fit together in a coherent manner. Empirical credibility refers to the extent to which proposed solutions correspond to the ways the target audience sees the world. For example, does Emirati society see women as reliable politicians in the aftermath of the awarding of political rights? The final criterion is the credibility of the frame articulators. The genderframe was promoted not only by the federal state, but also by local governments and public officials at the various levels of the state apparatus. Since the ruling families have always been visibly engaged in the promotion of women’s rights, distinctions between the state (federal and local) and the ruling families are difficult to draw. This is particularly so because male members of the families tend to occupy the high echelons of federal and local power. Therefore, and as a result of these blurred boundaries, policies tend to be popularly understood as deriving from the rulers’ wishes, a consequence of the highly personalistic traits of Emirati leadership.41 Therefore, the drive towards the expansion of women’s rights in the UAE has been popularly identified as generally corresponding to the desires of the ruling families.

The second subgroup of resonance is salience, meaning the significance the Emirati population attributes to the genderframe as an explanatory device. It is also analysed by means of three subcriteria. The first is the centrality of the genderframe, i.e. the importance that those explanations bear on the lives of the target audience. The second is its experiential commensurability, i.e. the perceived congruence of the genderframe with the population’s and specifically the women’s everyday experience. The third is its narrative fidelity, i.e. the extent to which the articulated genderframe has cultural resonance with the populations’ narratives, myths and basic assumptions.

(c) Strategic alterations, as the name indicates, underline the ‘deliberative, utilitarian, and goal directed’ aims that lie at the core of modifications to the genderframe. Their objective is precisely to adjust the gender-frame to events that may be challenging the explanatory power that the genderframe had hitherto offered.42 These alterations can be of four types: amplification, bridging, extension, and transformation.

Amplification refers to the magnifying of existing beliefs and values, which involves idealization, clarification or invigoration. Bridging is about the linking of two or more ideologically congruent but structurally unconnected frames regarding a particular issue. This would include, e.g., the connection between the genderframing of women’s employment and the state’s Emiratization policy (to be discussed in Chapter 4). Both are different policies but perfectly compatible. Extension refers to the inclusion of issues and concerns that are presumed to be of importance to potential adherents and that were not part of the initial genderframe. An example of this phenomenon is the inclusion of political rights for women, only awarded almost forty years after the genderframe was first created. The final strategic alteration is the genderframe’s transformation. In this case, it is about changing old understandings and meanings and generating new ones.43 The examination criteria are summarized in the following table.

Since frames are mental constructs whose effects may or may not translate into observable behaviour, gauging the influence of ideational elements in action necessarily runs into the problem of operational measurement. In order to circumvent this problem it is necessary to seek strong empirical grounding so as to support the case for frame analysis.44 Therefore, this work uses a variety of qualitative research methods, ranging from the analysis of primary and secondary sources, to the collection of information from field research. The argument here presented is based on the analysis of these various materials and my own interpretation of them.

The genderframe is a heuristic construction for the purposes of explaining both the expansion of women’s rights and the reasons why they have mobilized. In order to produce a historically grounded genderframe, I resorted to close examination and content analysis of women-related speeches and statements made by state officials and members of the ruling families, which were obtained from a variety of sources. These include official publications and websites, online newspapers such as Gulf News and al-Khaleej, in addition to other online ‘grey literature’. The vast majority of the sources utilized were in English, with selective resorting to materials in Arabic.

Reflecting the centralizing efforts of the federal state, the quotes that are more readily available, publicized and published (at least in English), belong to Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan, former president of the federation, and his wife Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, who is widely considered as the leader of the UAE women’s movement. Unfortunately, information about other rulers’ actions and their wives is more sparse, but it is used whenever it was available to me. The information collected during a research stay in the UAE from January 2007 until May 2008 form the backbone for the argument here presented. It is based on the analysis of extensive interviews (both unstructured and semi-structured), direct observations, and informal conversations. The interviews were conducted with about eighty Emiratis, the majority of those female, who have been engaged in women-related issues. These include homemakers and a variety of professionals such as academics, social workers, politicians and prominent citizens. From the information obtained and its interpretation, inferences were derived as regards general attitudes to the genderframe. 

In terms of sample constitution, I began by detecting females that were involved with women’s associations. Further respondents were then identified through snowball sampling, Internet search, personal connections, and recommendations. Interviews were conducted across the seven emirates, although people from the emirates of Dubai and Sharjah constitute the majority of the sample. This was essentially so for reasons of access.

Most interviews were recorded, although on occasion only some note-taking was possible. Because interviews have on occasion delivered information of a more personal nature, they were anonymized throughout the work so as to protect the privacy of the respondents, not because their views on the subject at hand were considered controversial.

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1 See Khoury 1980: 32; Peck 2001: 145–146.

2 Khalifa 1979: 95.

3 Van der Meulen 1997: 14, 18.

4 Hourani 1992: 105. Women’s situations in Trucial society will be elaborated further in the next chapter.

5 Khalifa 1979: 103–104.

6 Heard-Bey 1999: 18–26.

7 Van der Meulen 1997: 13.

8 Lienhardt 2001: 25.

9 Crystal 1989: 429. on contemporary Gulf elites, see Peterson 2007: 21–36.

10 Davidson 2005: 98–103. See also Andrea Rugh’s 2007 study on the Trucial politics of succession.

11 King 2001: 70–97.

12 Heard-Bey 1999: 132, 135–136.

13 Townsend 1984: 35–36, 40; Heard-Bey 2005: 359.

14 Townsend 1984: 37.

15 Heard-Bey 2005: 359.

16 Chilcote 1992: 617. For discussions about the concepts of modernization and development, see the edited collection by Schelkle et al. 2000.

17 This theoretical perspective was first presented in Carvalho Pinto 2010: 82–93.

18 See, for example, al-Mughni 2001; Abu-Lughod 1998.

19 Goffman 1974: 2. For a review of the history of the concept see Noakes and Johnston 2005: 1–32.

20 Snow and Benford 1988: 197–198; Noakes and Johnston 2005: 3.

21 Snow et al. 1986: 465–467; Snow and Benford 1988: 198.

22 Noakes and Johnston 2005: 7.

23 Snow and Benford 1988: 198.

24 Snow and Benford 2005: 209. For a discussion of the relationship between framing and frames and ideology, see the exchanges between Snow and Benford and oliver and Johnston in Noakes and Johnston 2005: 185–216.

25 Snow and Benford 1988: 200.

26 Zald 1996: 266–267.

27 Swidler 1986: 273.

28 Snow and Benford 2000: 629.

29 Zald 1996: 267.

30 See Snow and Benford 2000: 611.

31 Hajer and Laws 2006: 256–257.

32 Derichs 2004.

33 Derichs 1999: 3.

34 The concept of ‘gender frame’ was previously used by Karen Beckwith 2001 in her study of the transformed tactics of striking coal workers as a response to state actions. She argues that a genderframe of ‘mining masculinities’ was used to justify unconventional tactics. Similarly, Susan Franceschet 2004 also made use of the concept in her study of first- and second-wave feminist movements in Chile. 

35 See Noonan 1995: 81–111 as regards the Chilean case.

36 See Kandiyoti 2001: 56.

37 See Derichs 2004: 24; Derichs 2002: 226.

38 See Derichs 1999: 3 as regards the Malaysian case.

39 Extracted from Snow and Benford 2000: 611–639.

40 Derichs 2002: 227.

41 Personal interviews, UAE, 2007 and 2008. This insight also applies to other Gulf monarchies. on the relationship between the ruling families and the state in Arabia, see Herb 1999.

42 Snow and Benford 2000: 624.

43 Ibid: 624, 625.

44 Johnston 2005: 238.

45 The diagnostic assessment refers to the UAE state’s evaluation of the tasks ahead for the process of nation-building in general. The diagnostic genderframing refers to the extant tasks as regards the status of women.

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