GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

Family Name:
First Name:
Title of Paper:
“I Want to be a Leader, But Men Are Better than Women in Leadership Positions”: State Feminism and Legitimizing Myths in the United Arab Emirates
Paper Proposal Text :
This paper investigates how state feminism in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has impacted female perceptions of female leadership. State feminism in the UAE framed female leadership as an important aspect of national development, a representation which is more acceptable in local society than the framing of female leadership as the issue of women’s rights. This paper argues that because this type of state feminism ties women’s rights to national development, pursuing women’s rights in the private spheres is irrelevant, even unfavorable, allowing hostile and benevolent sexism to prevail alongside support for female empowerment. Therefore, this paper explores the following questions: How does state feminism’s portrayal of the ideal woman in leadership impact females’ perceptions of women in leadership? Do Emirati women endorse sexist perceptions regarding female leaders? To answer these questions, a survey was completed by 350 female Emirati students at a national university in the UAE, and results were supported by interviews with Emirati female leaders, as well as my own experience as an Emirati female teaching at a national university in Dubai.

This paper argues that not only is female leadership in the UAE tied to national duty, but the idealized female leader is still described as a mother who maintains her “duties” as a primary caregiver alongside her professional commitments (National Education for Grade 9 2015-2016, 14). Pinto (2012) describes these depictions as “gender-framing,” and explains that when the state supports women’s participation, they do so through framing it under culturally and socially accepted ideals (6-7). The employment, education and leadership of women is framed in relation to the nation and society, and not in terms of women’s inherent rights and liberation. Women’s associations in the UAE provide a fine example of that: Al-Qassimi (1993) states that the goals of women’s associations in the UAE were tied to goals of nation-building rather than female empowerment (164). This is one major reason why their activities centered on those (such as eradicating illiteracy and competitions for memorizing the Quran), rather than demanding that women get the same citizenship laws for their children. Similarly, Emirati female leaders are expected to help serve their nation, but are also expected to play the roles of full-time mothers, to wear the “national” dress, and to espouse the same thoughts and attitudes prevalent in mainstream society.
Therefore, it is not surprising that the survey results showed contradictory attitudes among the respondents. Indeed, the findings show that although 93% of the female respondents want to or probably want to be leaders, they still endorsed sexist stereotypes and legitimizing myths. For example, 43% thought that men are (or more likely are) better than women in leadership positions, and another 43% agreed or strongly agreed that a woman’s primary role is that of a caretaker. These contradictions are most likely due to the type of “gender-framing” that state feminism promotes, particularly that it endorses some aspects of women’s rights (e.g. female leadership) by presenting them through a “traditional” lens that is acceptable within society (e.g. that women can be leaders as long as they are also primary caregivers at home).

Similar situations have been found in other parts of the world: Women in Ataturk’s Turkey were being empowered to serve the nation, as well as to create a modern nation-state. However, the rights of these women were only understood in their relation to the state. For example, the state did not concern itself with the mistreatment of women in the private spheres (White 2003, 158). In Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s state feminism promoted the work and education of women, but still kept them relegated to patriarchal standards at home, where the personal status laws described them as dependent on men and gave them less rights in their personal lives, such as in divorce (Hatem 1999, 232-233). Similarly, in the UAE, although women outperform men in education and have reached high and influential positions in government, they still do not have the same personal rights as men. For example, they do not have the right to grant their children citizenship, as do Emirati men (even though this is not sanctioned by religion).
Gender-framing therefore may advance women’s participation by making it socially acceptable for women to work in leading positions, but may also reinforce group-based hierarchies, and what Sidanius and Pratto (1999) termed as legitimizing myths. This is because gender-faming plays on the myths and cultural values of a society and uses them to advance a certain agenda, rather than disputing them. Therefore, beliefs such as that women should first and foremost be caregivers will prevail rather than allowing for alternative views (such as shared caregiving between the mother and father) to emerge. This research finds that while women are gaining more voice in the public sphere through leadership positions, their acceptance there is contingent upon them abiding by society’s gender norms that they themselves endorse.


Al- Qassimi, Hind.1993. Women in the United Arab Emirates: Challenges of Education, Employment and Decision-Making [Almar’a fy Al’ymarat, tahadyat alʿylm wal ʿamal wa ’ytykhadh al qarar]. Sharjah, UAE: Series of Sociological Letters 3: Sociologists Society [Silsilat alrasa’yl alʿylmya 3: Jamʿyat al’jtymaʿyyn].

Hatem, Mervat. 1992. “Economic and Political Liberation in Egypt and the Demise of State Feminism.” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 24 (2): 231-251.
National Education for Grade 9 [Altarbiya alwaṭaniya lilṣaf altāsiʿ]. 2015-2016. UAE: Ministry of Education.
Pinto, Vania Carvalho. 2012. Nation-Building, State and the Genderframing of Women’s Rights in the United Arab Emirates (1971-2009). Reading, UK: Ithaca Press.

Sidanius, Jim and Felicia Pratto.1999. Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

White, Jenny. 2003. “State feminism, Modernization, and the Turkish Republican Woman.” National Women’s Studies Association Journal. 15 (3): 145-159.