A Man's Worldl: Heritage, Gender Roles and the Late Pearl Trade in the Emirates along the Southern Gulf

By Victoria Hightower
Submitted to Session P2561 (Islam, Gender, and Economics, 2010 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
Pearls were historically the Gulf's primary export, providing the vast majority of the income for the area. There is an acknowledgment by most of those who write about this area, scholars and non-scholars alike, that the pearl trade was conducted mostly by men and boys. Aside from explaining that pearling was a male occupation, there is little discussion of gender, gender roles or the implications of these ideas upon society in the books which discuss the topic. When local authors discuss heritage and pearling they focus on the hardships and difficulties of life and the love that sailors felt for those left behind on land.

In recollections of the pearl trade, men were the most conspicuous participants in pearling and historical accounts highlight their roles in the trade. Women are either absent from the narrative or reduced to objects of men's love and longing. In interviews conducted and a survey of the literature produced locally in the UAE, it is clear that the descriptions of gender roles are ideals and norms rather than fact. Although women's roles were far from the gathering or selling of pearls, the women participated in the date harvest, which was the primary food item for many on the Arab coast of the Gulf. Further, in the late pearl trade, during the second quarter of the 20th century, cracks formed in these normative gender roles and at least one woman worked along the coast as a merchant.

This study is based on articles published in the magazine Turath (heritage) as well as books published locally in the UAE and interviews with those who participated in the pearl trade.
Drawing on these sources, I will examine the connections between heritage and gender roles both within and on the periphery of the pearl trade in order to expand the general knowledge of gender in the late 19th and early 20th century in the emirates along the southern Gulf. The emphasis on men's role in the pearl trade is due to a bias in the sources, which has created a bias in the historiography. In order to fully understand the workings of society during this time, it is necessary to understand how both genders contributed to the overall social system and how this system became increasingly unsustainable as pearl revenues declined.