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Vânia Carvalho Pinto, Nation-Building, State and the Gender framing of Women’s Rights in the United Arab Emirates (1971‑2009)

Reading, Ithaca Press, 2012, 152 pages
Laure Assaf
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Nation-Building, State and the Gender framing of Women’s Rights in the United Arab Emirates (1971-2009) / Vânia Carvalho Pinto. – Reading, Ithaca Press, 2012. – 152 p.

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1In a brief essay (152 p.), Vânia Carvalho Pinto addresses the policies and narratives adopted by the Emirati state towards its female citizens, from its foundation in 1971 to 2009. The author makes a convincing argument that the incorporation of women in the nation-building process of the United Arab Emirates has played a major role in the State’s legitimating strategies. She also shows how the evolution of the latter is intertwined with the transformation of the national identity narrative, from the rush to modernity in the 1970s, to a focus on the preservation and patrimonialization of local culture from the 1980s onwards. Her analysis is mainly based on official speeches related to women’s rights published in newspaper articles or gathered in tribute books to Emirati rulers. Other sources include magazines published by women’s associations and personal interviews with Emirati women carried out during the author’s one-year stay at the Supreme Council of Family Affairs in Sharjah. Very few Arabic-language sources are mentioned.

2 The first chapter provides a short and rather simplistic historical background of the country, before introducing the theoretical framework of the research. The author borrows concepts such as gender framing and gender frame from the study of social movements, where they help to evaluate how movement leaders use cultural elements familiar to the target group in order to achieve mobilization. In this case, the “leader” in question is the Emirati state, and the book sets out to examine how policies regarding women’s education, their employment, and later on their political participation were legitimized by framing them with shared societal values such as religion or family. The resulting interpretive framework, i.e. the gender frame, was then altered and adjusted, more or less successfully, to stay relevant in accordance with society’s changing views.

3 The remaining chapters roughly follow a chronological order. Chapters 2 and 3 deal with the period from the creation of the country (1971) to the early 1980s. They expound the problems faced by the Federation in its early times, and the reasons why — as well as the means through which — women became both symbolic and instrumental participants in building loyalty towards the new State. Indeed, the United Arab Emirates was created out of different territorial entities ruled by independent tribes; facing external border disputes and internal turmoil, the new State needed to build a cohesive nation. This was carried out mainly by setting up a welfare state, by creating jobs within the state apparatus and by establishing an educational system. In this context, women were seen as a crucial component of nation-building because of the following three factors: their role in the family and specifically in children’s education, the necessity to form a national workforce in regard to the already growing number of foreign workers in the country, and lastly because women’s rights were internationally regarded as a symbol of progress, thus beneficial for the country’s image. If they were to transmit new values and a new mindset to their children, the women needed to have a stake in preserving the new state. This was achieved through specific policies fostering women’s education and their work in gender-segregated spaces, as well as the creation of women’s associations throughout the country: the UAE participated in international conferences on women’s rights as early as 1975. To become acceptable to the population, these policies were framed by ideas of patriotism, family well-being and religious prescriptions. However, the unqualified jobs handed out by the State to its nationals paradoxically failed to provide incentives to pursue education after a basic level — for women and men alike. Furthermore, women’s employment still stirred some controversy (whereas education had been readily accepted), and economic progress rendered their work more expendable.

4The most groundbreaking aspect of these chapters is certainly the study of women’s associations, a novel and interesting subject. Vânia Carvalho Pinto shows how these associations provided the first “public spaces” for women, teaching both literacy and professional skills, and constituting places for intellectual and political debates. The object of numerous criticisms, most of the associations owed their continued existence to the support of ruling families and the involvement of their female members, yet they were quite successful in convincing women of the importance of their national role. It is regrettable however that the sociological composition of these associations is alluded to without further analysis. For example, the author mentions how few Emirati women joined these associations, partly because of the prevalent presence of foreign women, but does not expand on this idea. Similarly, the fact that the associations’ activities and membership soon became irrelevant to elite, educated women, and thus began to be considered as more conservative spaces, would have required more discussion in terms of class and race. Extracts of interviews with women rarely mention their sociological background in order to situate their discourse.

5The main interest of this essay probably lies in the last chapters of the book revolving around the contemporary period, where “cultural anxieties” and major public debates in the UAE, such as the question of men marrying foreigners or the presence of foreign domestic workers in Emirati homes are contextualized and put into historical perspective. Indeed, Chapter 4 addresses the period from the late 1970s to 2009, and describes a change of paradigm as regards national identity. Although pre-oil ways of life had first been considered as backward, and thus necessary to depart from, the intensity of socio-economic changes in the country has fuelled anxieties about development perceived as a threat to religion and local culture — all the more so as the numbers of expatriate workers increased. The State embraced the idea of “cultural authenticity” through the creation of heritage and cultural revival projects and, in line with this new narrative, started focusing on the compatibility of women’s employment with their traditional role in the family. As the author puts it, “Whereas [women] had previously been presented with the task of ‘modernizing’ the family, from the 1980s onwards they were expected to ‘traditionalize’ the family so as to ensure the survival of Emirati cultural-religious values” (p. 69). Although they found some resonance with women who had not yet had access to education or work, these discourses became less relevant for those who had previously responded to the State’s incentives, as reflected by the fading appeal of women’s associations, now perceived as directed towards an older age group. The focus on the family also worked as a way to quell emerging social issues: the roles ascribed to Emirati women as preferential spouses for Emirati men and the only real biological mothers of Emirati children was in response to the phenomenon of “mixed marriages”, while their responsibility for the education and transmission of cultural values to their children was in answer to the perceived negative effect of foreign maids, especially as regards language. If the first role somehow benefitted Emirati women, for whom it had become difficult to find a spouse, the second one put the blame squarely on working women, accused of forsaking their family duties — although, as the author justly highlights, women’s employment had never really been accepted. In order to keep supporting women’s employment, official narratives then started stressing the necessity for female citizens to join the workforce in the context of Emiratization, i.e. policies aimed at lessening dependency on foreign workers.

  • 1 Al-Rasheed, Madawi. A Most Masculine State. Gender, Politics, and Religion in Saudi Arabia. New Yor (...)

6The last chapter first examines the remaining difficulties regarding women’s employment, which lie in the opposition faced by women to reach leadership or decision-making positions, although they are generally more educated than their male counterparts — in other terms, the well-known “glass ceiling” effect. The author qualifies progress made in women’s education, considering that, very often, university is the only possible option for young women; she also underlines how there are less job opportunities available for young women today than there were for their elders. Vânia Carvalho Pinto then turns to the question of women’s political participation, which has been supported by the State since the late 1990s, with the nomination of a few women as ministers in the 2000s; but she suggests the idiom of women’s rights in which it was framed got little support from society. However, the book here falls short of questioning State rhetoric when it assumes that lingering opposition to Emirati women’s employment and reluctance to women’s political participation are due to society’s conservatism (as opposed to the will of a progressive State), and thus fails to address the very modern aspects of such an opposition. Moreover, the visible success of a few elite women does not necessarily imply a political will towards women’s emancipation, and can serve to hinder more than foster political rights in general, as showed by Madawi al-Rasheed for Saudi Arabia (al-Rasheed, 20131).

7Overall, this essay is an interesting account of the role and transformations of State policies towards women in the UAE. It convincingly shows how these policies and discourses have been framed, adjusted and altered in order to build a cohesive national identity, a process in which women were perceived as playing a crucial role, although the characteristics of this role have changed over time from the tenants of modernity to the preservers of an authentic local culture. The mostly top-down approach, focusing on discourses, calls for a complementary study focusing on practices. Finally, although the author states at the beginning of the book her intent not to “dilute” the Emirati case within the regional discussion, this work provides interesting grounds for comparison with recent works regarding women and the State in the Arabian Peninsula, notably in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or Oman.

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1 Al-Rasheed, Madawi. A Most Masculine State. Gender, Politics, and Religion in Saudi Arabia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

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Laure Assaf, « Vânia Carvalho Pinto, Nation-Building, State and the Gender framing of Women’s Rights in the United Arab Emirates (1971‑2009) », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 4 | 2015, mis en ligne le 10 mars 2015, consulté le 22 mars 2017. URL :

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