GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Exploring the Nation: gender, identity and cuisine in the UAE
Paper Proposal Text :
Conceptions of gender and identity as remembered, negotiated and performed by women are at the center of the research project Culinary Life Histories: An Exploration of Gender, Identity, and Nation-building through Cuisine. Using multi-disciplinary perspectives from history, anthropology, and literature, and multi-method approaches including oral history, visual anthropology, participant observation, interviews, focus groups, and historical research, the project records the life histories of senior Emirati women and examines these through the lens of food and cuisine. The project explores women’s lives before the union of the Emirates in 1971 and how their lives changed after the formation of the United Arab Emirates.
Women\'s roles in the family have been dramatically altered as the nation has modernized following the discovery of oil in the region. A woman\'s role was as primary food producer and cook at the center of family life. In recent decades, by contrast, women have become commodity consumers and household managers, supervising foreign staff preparing meals in Emirati homes. The rapid change from subsistence-level provision to global excess has deprived a younger generation of women of the culinary skills and cultural knowledge of their foremothers.
This project documents the rich culinary heritage, traditions and food practices of the region in the words of the women who produced and prepared these foods thus foregrounding their means of identity-making, power and cultural knowledge. The research engages with collective and individual memory, nostalgia and the desire among older Emirati women to preserve the skills and embodied forms of knowledge that may otherwise disappear or perhaps even worse, become little more than clichéd, shallow heritage displays divorced from the meaningful experiences and lives of women themselves.
This paper discusses the interview data from senior Emirati women and considers this in terms of the study of national-identity, heritage and gender in the UAE. From the oral histories of the individual lives of ordinary women I examine an alternative way of approaching nation-building and identity-formation in terms rarely considered in official histories. By examining the meanings attached to food in the stories told to me, I show how Emirati women view themselves and experience history, development and change in everyday but essential familial contexts. I also examine cuisine as a cultural construct and analyse how women are portrayed and represented in the media and heritage sectors in the UAE. I conclude that the reductivist and essentialising public portrayals of the “ideal traditional Emirati woman” are challenged by the diverse, multi-faceted and engaged narratives of senior Emirati women who have lived through the fast-paced changes that have taken place in the gulf over the last 70 years.