Emirati female intellectuals: On challenges, spaces for advancement and production of gendered discourse

By Vania Carvalho Pinto
Submitted to Session P4063 (Gendered Spaces in the Arabian Peninsula, 2015 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Arabian Peninsula;
Gender/Women's Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
A knowledge-based economy rests on the premise that all citizens must possess the necessary skills to operate in a modern economy. In the case of the UAE, such terminology has been extensively used in official documents and speeches in order to highlight the type of society and economy to which the government aspires. A good example is the UAE National Vision 2021, which charts the ambitions for the UAE as a whole for the next decade. Yet within this important document, the promotion of professional opportunities for women is mentioned solely in passing and within a section that deals with family cohesiveness. It may be that such a location is indicative of the framework within which the expansion and betterment of female professional opportunities is still discussed; nevertheless, this limited reference is still surprising given the efforts of the UAE in making the expansion of women’s rights an important part of its domestic and international image during the last decade.

In this paper, I focus on a relatively neglected field of enquiry: Emirati female intellectuals. Usually referred to as ‘women achievers’ or ‘women leaders’, there have been some works focused on their experiences. However, most of these have tended to assume a biographical tone, indicative of the public use of these women as role models whose professional achievements support the further integration of women into the workforce. Further, the prestige and royal approval that comes with such public highlighting has led societal detractors to dismiss their positions and achievements as mere window dressing.

To understand these women and their emerging place in Emirati society, I pursue two lines of inquiry. First, I look at how educated Emirati women approach the position of women in their society and what their discourse tells us about them and their views. Second, I investigate the critical challenges that highly educated women endure in their professional paths. My research draws on semi-structured and unstructured interviews conducted in 2007/08 with Emirati women with PhDs, as well as secondary literature. Findings reveal that very high education does offer some shielding from criticism and accusations of lack of knowledge, but female intellectuals often face the same kind of social restrictions that affect other less educated women in society. Ultimately, this paper seeks to ascertain the extent to which being an intellectual is still a profoundly gendered experience in the UAE.