Emirati (Arab, Muslim) Women: Their changing views on marriage

Ann Barrell, M.Lit. & Dawn McBride, Ph.D
Zayed University (United Arab Emirates) and University of Lethbridge (Canada)


Less than 35 years ago, people of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) lived as nomads who traveled by camel across the desert looking for food and ways to earn an income. Today, rapid urbanization and significant government reforms are fueled by the recent discovery of oil. One of the many consequences of this is that the Emirati people (who are Muslim) have experienced significant cultural changes as they adapt to a new, urbanized lifestyle. In the last few decades, the government has become increasingly active in supporting women’s freedom to acquire an education and employment outside the home. As professors of post-secondary female Emirati students, we listen to stories of how difficult it can be for the families of our students, and for society in general, to adapt to the radical changes in women’s roles. In this context of rapid cultural change, it is women who are fundamentally changing the social landscape of the country. It is this change that forms the basis of our current research and this paper.

Over the past four years we have undertaken a series of research studies to investigate the beliefs of university Emirati women as it relates to marriage, family, their careers, and their culture. Through the use of surveys (n=200 participants in various surveys) and 19 focus groups, we have begun to identify the beliefs, values and challenges associated with women’s changing role in the UAE society.

The heightened necessity of cultural sensitivity throughout this research required the development of an innovative approach to collecting data using focus groups. This involved the use of fictional short stories written by a local Emirati. This procedure proved to be highly effective and could easily be adapted to other cultural settings where the moderator is outside the cultural mainstream. Details of this unique focus group methodology will be discussed.

The results have yielded rich data related to women’s views on their changing roles in marriage, family life, and in having a career. One predominant theme, which was revealed in the focus groups, was the challenge women faced in separating their country’s cultural beliefs from Islam’s practices. This research is of significance to practitioners in diverse fields, including educators and those in the helping fields. Special reference will be made on increasing one’s cultural competence in teaching Muslim women and in supporting their quest to have a strong family life and a successful career. The results will be highlighted with ample use of examples from the research data, as well as video clips. This presentation will be delivered in a culturally sensitive manner designed to shed light on how the changing Muslim Emirati women’s roles are central to the transformation of their remarkable country.

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