GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Gender and Globalization: Cultural Exchange Programs in the UAE
Paper Proposal Text :
This paper analyses the way gender relations within Islam and Emirati culture are constructed and presented in cultural exchange programs in the United Arab Emirates. My research will point to the ways globalization has affected cultural relationships and Emiratis’ understanding of their own and other cultures. My findings are mainly based on participant observation and interviews with managers and young Emirati volunteers at the Sheikh Mohamed Centre for Cultural Understanding in Dubai, with additional data collection from the Sheikh Obaid House in Dubai, the Sharjah Centre for Cultural Communication in Sharjah and the Embrace Arabia / Embracing Cultures and Ask Ali cultural exchange presenter and tour guide Ali Alsaloom in Abu Dhabi. In particular, the Sheikh Mohamed Centre wishes to demonstrate a level of control over globalization. Their presentations focus on portraying Emiratis and Islamic culture generally as vital, strong, and certainly not overrun or subsumed by the global processes of modernization that have inspired much of the UAE’s development. Indeed, many of these cultural exchange programs and presenters wish to show that their culture and religion does not need to be ‘updated’ to fit into their globalizing country, and the models of liberal thought brought in by it. Rather, they wish to illustrate that Islam itself is already an update that empowers women and is very compatible with the processes of globalization, despite what some Western audience members might perceive. This paper will expand knowledge on the process of cultural understanding and integration taking place in the UAE among national and expatriate cultural exchange leaders and their audiences within the framework of globalization. I will also highlight the ways presenting cultural information to Western visitors and audiences changes the way some of female volunteers understand their culture and themselves.
Globalization has indeed put women and their changing roles in the spotlight in the UAE, and the cultural exchange programs of Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi are prominent examples of this concentrated focus on women among outside visitors and residents, as well as nationals. When the female volunteers at the Sheikh Mohamed Centre discuss their desire to wear the abaya and sheyla for cultural, religious and modern convenience reasons, along with other such declarations of personal choice, they are expressing their own control over the forces of globalization. They are identifying what they wish to hold onto as part of their tradition and showing appreciation for the opportunities afforded by enlightened leaders who developed their country. All the while, these volunteers and cultural presentation leaders reinforce that they have kept the important aspects of their traditions and integrated the positives from modernization. They present no struggles, only seamless integration of cherished tradition and their modern, global future. Emirati women’s role as speakers and leaders who have opinions about their culture and the country’s modernization reveals a level of empowerment; however, I will problematize this idea by addressing its potential superficiality for the sake of Western audiences and presentation coherency.
Much work has been done contextualizing the effect of individual rights-based liberal policies and frameworks on Muslim women and their cultural integration within European countries. Yet little analysis has been done concerning the ways in which Muslim women and men within Muslim majority countries go about framing and explaining their interpretation of women’s rights and duties for a gender-equality minded Western audience. These cultural exchange presenters assume that their audience’s expectations are based on liberal notions of individual rights, agency, autonomy and equality between the sexes. These beliefs are often seen as in opposition to the complementary or equitable gender roles that more easily align with Emirati cultural norms and understandings of Islam. My interlocutors within the Sheikh Mohamed Centre and those unaffiliated uphold equitable gender roles as the best model for gender positioning. Yet these volunteers and presenters are aware that these ideas are not easy for Western visitors and expatriates to understand or accept, and are thus trained to focus on their personal choices within Emirati culture and Islam. Utilizing the seminal work of Saba Mahmood and her arguments re-inscribing our notions of what it means for a woman to have agency and empowerment, my work will problematize the meaning of empowerment for the Emirati cultural exchange volunteers and Western audiences, and how this gap is addressed.
The Sheikh Mohamed Centre makes every effort to ensure that Islam and Emirati culture appeals to Western visitors as convenient, modern and choice-based especially as applied to women’s dress and roles. My paper will argue that presentations of gender roles as empowering for women within Islam are selectively presented and constructed for the sake of cultural understanding between Emiratis and Western visitors to the Centre within the context of globalization. I will explore whether this presentation is useful and productive, how it affects women’s sense of gender relations, and what are the outcomes of these interactions between Emirati volunteers and the Western visitors to cultural exchange programs within the UAE.