Role of Women in Society Essay

In many parts of the world, modernity is associated with egalitarianism, equality under the law, tolerance, and diversity. This paper argues that there are a plethora of reasons why modernity, as defined by scholars such as Giddens Anthony and Georg Simmel, has not yielded these benefits for women in the UAE.

Modernity has failed to uplift the lives of women in the UAE in spite of doing the exact opposite in other parts of the world such as South Korea and the United States. While the urban centers in the UAE have been praised for upholding women’s rights and freedom’s relatively better than the rest of the countries in the Middle East, the steps are still insufficient by international standards. Modernity has reinforced women’s subjugation in the UAE instead of thwarting it. In this study, the paper asks: To what extent has modernity affected the roles and attitudes of women in the United Arab Emirates (UAE)? To answer the question, it is important to understand the concept of modernity.

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Modernity is the era in which certain socio-cultural norms became popular between the 17th century Renaissance period and the 18th century Enlightenment period. From a historical perspective, the modern era ended at the start of World War II. This ushered in the postmodern era. In spite of this, the socio-cultural values that became prevalent in the post-modern era are still defined by the umbrella of modernity. In some disciplines such as military science, modernity refers to the 20th and 21st-century war dynamics. When modernity is associated with cultural and intellectual movements, it may be split into three phases: early modernity, classical modernity, and late modernity.

My view on women’s rights in the UAE is that there are several factors that have worked together against gender equality. These factors include reliance on oil, pressure from the international organization, and fear of western imperialism. There are various studies which point toward each of these issues as a potential predicament against women’s empowerment in the country. Here, I review each of these issues and argue on them based on the available literature. The broad aim of this study is to offer a comprehensive understanding of women’s issues in the UAE under the modern era.

International Organizations
HRW argues that modernity has brought about international concerns with respect to the manner in which women are treated in the UAE. In 2015, the Human Rights Watch wrote to the CEDAW Committee in the UAE (“The United Arab Emirates” 2014). The submission was meant to address various articles of the convention that the UAE government had not acted on. In the submission, HRW noted that the UAE was practicing active discrimination against women. Modern UAE actively discriminates against women when it comes to personal status laws. The nation’s Federal law 28 of 2005 makes it clear that women have fewer rights than men on matters pertaining to marriage, social life, divorce, and domestic violence. Modernity makes it possible for international organizations such as the HRW to challenge the perception of women in patriarchal countries such as the UAE. It is important to review how such pressure is presented to a nation that is considered to be a successful amalgamation of progress and traditionalism.

The HRW noted that the UAE is not a typical Muslim or Arab country. Economists have noted that the UAE has somewhat managed to integrate modernity with tradition and culture. The country has experienced high levels of technological growth over the past century. The UAE has also been a beacon of tolerance and stability in the Arab world. The main challenges faced by the UAE are linked to groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood that have attempted to shape the country in accordance with their own views of Islam. In essence, such groups do not believe that the UAE should be tolerant of other religions other than radical Islam. This does not mean that the UAE is a secular nation, it only means that religion takes its rightful place in politics, decision-making, and social matters.

Like most Middle Eastern countries, the UAE is a patriarchy. However, it seems that its urban centers are not as patriarchal as those in countries such as Yemen and Qatar (Solati, 2015). The manner in which women are treated in modern UAE is a blend of traditionalism and modernity. Like other patriarchal nations, a woman’s value is deeply tied to her role as a carrier of life. The UAE government is keen to observe dates that recognize women across the world such as March 8 which is International Women’s Day. However, the laws that are put in place to restrict women’s choices are praised as some of the examples of women’s special place in society. There are numerous laws which discriminate against women in the UAE in the guise of protecting them. For instance, a woman needs male guardianship for most of her financial life. While the Islamic government enforces this law as a way of caring for women, it places many constraints on free will. Women have no freedom to act autonomously on marriage in the country. A male guardian has to conclude a woman’s marriage certificate in order for her to get married. There are avenues for objection. However, these usually require a male judge to be the guardian. This may be compared to the freedom that men have in the UAE. A man can marry up to 4 women who are legally required to be subservient to him.

Unlike other Islamic nations, women have the freedom of taking on certain jobs. This comes with a catch. A woman that takes a job without her husband’s permission is considered to be breaking the law. When it comes to divorce, the law has many limitations for women. A woman may not end a marriage. Such rights belong to men. A woman has the option of employing a court order which is highly limited. A woman may end her marriage under khul, which means that she loses her financial rights such as the dowry she received under the marriage contract. The provisions regarding domestic violence are vague. The Penal Code has provisions for spousal abuse. However, the remedies or intervention by state powers appear to be left out or argued vaguely.

There are many elements of Shariah law that are applicable in the UAE (Hasan and Laws, 2007). For instance, the level of domestic abuse that prompts the government to consider taking action is only aid out in Shariah law. One clear illustration of this was the 2010 UAE Supreme Court Ruling that cited Penal Code 53. The court ruled that husbands had the right to beat their wives as a form of punishment or a way of getting them to do things that wives should do. The only exception was that physical punishment was not supposed to leave physical marks on a woman’s skin. Since then, there have been cases of UAE police discouraging women not to report domestic violence since it would hardly amount to an actual case. Women who are raped also have it difficult in the UAE. A woman who has been sexually assaulted and reports the same risks being subjected to prosecution for sex outside marriage (zina). While women in the UAE have it tough even in the modern age, migrant domestic workers are affected even worse. Many of these workers are women from Africa and Asia. They are treated worse than UAE women and are usually reduced to animals. They may be required to work without taking any breaks. Some are sexually abused by males in the house on a routine basis. Just like women from the UAE, reporting these incidents is not likely to lead to any serious investigations that can challenge the status quo.

The UAE government needs to adopt policies that are in line with the current definition of modernity such as that forwarded by Giddens and Pierson (1998):

Portrayed in more detail, it is associated with (1) a certain set of attitudes towards the world, the idea of the world as open to transformation, by human intervention; (2) a complex of economic institutions, especially industrial production and a market economy; (3) a certain range of political institutions, including the nation-state and mass democracy. Largely as a result of these characteristics, modernity is vastly more dynamic than any previous type of social order. (p. 94)

Women will not achieve real empowerment if the UAE government does not open its society to transformation. The social order that requires women to stay at home needs to be challenged from a legal perspective. The Human Rights Watch argues that it is not possible to achieve real modernity in the UAE if laws that punish indecency exist. According to the international organization, it should not be criminal to punish women for engaging in sexual relations in privacy just because they are not married. Under the same argument, women should be able to acquire birth certificates without marriage certificates. The Personal Status Law should be reformed to grant equal rights to both men and women when dealing with the issue of marriage.

Oil is Responsible
Having oil as the main source of national income in the UAE makes it difficult for women to achieve equality. This means that Islam has little to do with the lack of women’s representation in the workforce or governmental posts. Many observers have blamed Islam for having laws that require the subjugation of women and the cultivation of a patriarchy. However, a closer look at any country that heavily relies on oil as the main employer reveals that the nature of work has a bigger role to play than meets the eye. This is not isolated to the UAE. Other countries where women seem to hold onto traditional roles of childbearing and taking care of the home seem to have a similar case: Nigeria, Russia, Chile, and Botswana. Mineral production and oil drilling deal unfairly to women since most of the jobs that are available require the use of physical strength, resilience, and working under dangerous conditions.

Oil production as a modern national income source affects gender relations in the UAE by ensuring that there are only a few women in the workforce. This can be contrasted to countries where women have had an opportunity to work in the agricultural sector which is physically less demanding. The oil industry has led to other secondary problems for women such as low education for girls, little influence in marriage, and restricted social life. Naturally, oil-producing nations will have strong patriarchal cultures. By proposing this argument, Ross (2008), counters the commonly held academic position that economic prosperity promotes values such as gender equality. This theme is has been echoed by international organizations such as the World Bank. This explains why such organizations believe that the only way to rid the Islamic world of laws that are oppressive to women is through economic development. Ross (2008) counters this kind of rhetoric by suggesting economic development has numerous meanings. He notes that different kinds of economic development will yield different gender relations dynamics. However, the premise is that economic growth that is stimulated by mineral production hinders and discourages women from considering participating in the society at the capacity seen among men. As such, exaggerated gender inequalities will be seen in such nations.

To support this premises, Ross (2008) points to the resource curse. Both Europe and the United States are the world’s greatest markets for oil. This means that the two regions determine the economic wellbeing of many oil-producing nations such as the UAE. This dependency lowers the economic opportunities that are available for women. It also fosters Islamic fundamentalism. This suggestion is not difficult to contemplate when one considers that a sizable portion of women who live under Islamic patriarchy despise equality. Blydes and Linzer (2008) conducted a study in 18 Muslim countries and found out that women who had fewer opportunities were more likely to choose an Islamic patriarchy than those who were more empowered. This also means that Islamic fundamentalism is at the hands of western demand for oil as the chief source of energy. This same argument can be made regarding any precious mineral that is sourced from poor countries and exported to the west.

Female labor force participation is required if women in countries such as the UAE are to make significant gains in empowerment and self-determination. This will not happen as long as the most common jobs are masculine in nature. There are many studies which show that women achieve emancipation the more they work outside the home. This is true for both educated and noneducated women. As women participate in the labor force, they earn their own incomes and may decide to delay motherhood. This means that they end up being less fertile than women who stay at home (Brewster, K. L., & Rindfuss, R. R. (2000). Aside from the income, such women tend to network with their peers and learn how to deal and negotiate with men. This has been proved to the case among garment workers in Bangladesh.

Female labor participation has allowed women around the world to shake the chains of patriarchal structures. South Korea provides a good case study. At the start of the 20th century, Korea was a patriarchy. Females did not have their own names, boys and girls had to be separated at the age of 6, and women were forbidden from entering Seoul in the daytime. In 1930, more than 90% of women in Korea were illiterate. In the 1960s, South Korea was undergoing massive industrialization. This meant that women had to take some duties in the workforce. However, they were paid relatively low compared to men. Employers noticed this and started to hire more women since they provided cheaper labor. By 1975, industries dominated by women were responsible for more than 70% of the nation’s exports (Ross 2008). By 1980, females made 50% of the total workforce in the entire country. These developments allowed women’s organizations to form Korean Women’s Association United which was more confrontational toward the government. Women’s representation in the government rose quickly and lobbying became common. The Gender Equality Employment Act was passed in 1987 while the nation’s family laws were revised in 1989.

The UAE is not in such a fortunate situation as South Korea. Oil-rich nations tend to suffer from Dutch disease. This means that oil-production is so profitable that other industries do not seem to be worth pursuing. The influx of foreign currency further makes it impossible for other industries to thrive. Another important issue to remember is that the Dutch disease is associated with rising wages. This means that earners continue to become more and more important to their households. Unfortunately for women in the UAE, these earners are almost exclusively men. The level of dependency on the men only rises with time. Women, who are unlikely to be employed in physically challenging industries such as oil have another reason to embrace the patriarchy. For these reasons, it is important to look at James (2015) view on modernity. He defined modernity as follows:

The modern is thus defined by the way in which prior valences of social life … are reconstituted through a constructivist reframing of social practices in relation to basic categories of existence common to all humans: time, space, embodiment, performance, and knowledge. The word ‘reconstituted’ here explicitly does not mean replaced… (p. 51–52)

It appears that many patriarchal structures are terrified of the idea of losing power to women. This has been true in nearly every country in the world. However, James (2015) emphasizes that reconstituting social practices does not mean that the status quo is replaced. Rather, it means that it is enriched to function in a more inclusive manner. This natural way of things explains why women-dominated industries rose as fast as they did in countries such as South Korea.

A Reflex Response to Western Imperialism
There has been an argument that women’s treatment in the UAE and the rest of the Middle Eastern world is a response to western imperialism. One of the major promises made by Iranian opposition leaders in 1979 was that western imperialism and secularism was polluting the nation. When the revolutionist assumed power, they rolled back women’s rights and freedoms in almost every possible way. This response to western secularism is not unique to Iran. It has been seen in countries such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Radical Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood have also rallied massive support among the masses by promising to save the Islamic world from being colonized by the western values of freedom. While such calls mainly appeal to men who prefer to maintain traditionalism, women have been caught up in the issues and have had to choose the ideological parties that they are already familiar with. This also explains why Women in Saudi Arabia condemned the United States for claiming that they were under Islamic patriarchy. The reflex response against a potential colonization by the western world is so strong that most men revert to Islamic fundamentalism and bring along a sizable portion of the women.

The western world has found itself in an embarrassing situation of attempting to save people who do not believe they need saving in the first place. Unlike what many postmodernists predicted, globalization has not come without serious challenges. For the first time, many nations around the world are growing conscious of the fact that they have an identity. This has been triggered by observing individuals that behave, act, and think differently from them. The natural human response to such shock is conservatism. This has been seen in many countries around the world (Castells, M. (1997). People are starting to realize that they have an identity to pass on to their children. This reaction is conservative in nature and is forcing individuals to examine whether they are willing to lose their identity to preserve individualism as espoused by secular values. The crisis has been more pronounced in Europe and the United States amidst the refugee crisis. However, the Arab world has been impacted by these forces as well. This partly explains why Dubai has some of the laxest laws with respect to women’s dressing code in the Middle East. As foreign investors flood the city for business, it has become difficult for the UAE to remain intolerant of other values.

When confronted with ideological uncertainties, individuals embrace a conservative approach since it is safe. In explaining the concept of modernity Simmel (2012) takes a pragmatic approach. Simmel (2012) has defined modernity by placing the term in the context of individuality:

The deepest problems of modern life flow from the attempt of an individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society, against the weight of historical heritage and external culture and technique of life. (p. 11)

From this definition, it appears that individuality requires one to sacrifice some elements of their groupthink. This means shedding values that unify the group. Exposure to globalism is one of the reasons why there is such a strong pushback against secular values that empower women in the UAE. The patriarchs in the country feel that globalism is a direct attack on their conservative ways of life. This feeling is partly justified by the fact that globalism allows unrestricted movement. Under fundamentalists Islamic laws, women who travel without a male guardian are considered to be breaking the law.

Under many conditions, such women are considered to be dirty for having traveled alone. In a patriarchy, a woman’s chastity has to be protected since it is the most valuable thing she offers to the society and her husband. This also explains why women who have been raped will rarely report such incidents. Maintaining the image of chastity is the most important thing for a woman. Other factors that make women less sexually desirable include a high level of education and ability to confront male authority. All these factors are associated with western secular values and indecency.

There are certain factors that hinder women in the UAE from overcoming the oppressive nature of their nation. It appears that their progress as women has hit major challenges under the definition of modernity by scholars such as Simmels and Giddens. They have no chance to work together and share knowledge. When women work together, it allows them to share intimate information that leads to high levels of self-confidence, health knowledge, and contraception. All these factors would make them less dependent on men, more likely to control their child-bearing years, and less fertile. Overall, women’s entry into the labor force allows them to grow and consider themselves as potential leaders. This has been the case in India and the United States. It is important to note that the main reason why such countries have these benefits is the fact that textile work does not give men an advantage over women. Since the early days, many nations considered textile work to be primarily a female domain.

International pressure on their government creates a knee-jerk reflex which further empowers Islamic fundamentalism and the patriarchy. In this respect, CEDAW has made several recommendations which UAE has refused to implement. One of these recommendations is for the UAE to pass state legislation with respect to violence against women. CEDAW noted that it was necessary to make it a criminal offense for women to be punished physically in marriages. CEDAW also noted that modern UAE had to enact laws that give women equal rights in marriage institutions. The government also needed to establish property laws that depict men and women as equal. It also made recommendations that men and women be subjected to the same labor laws.

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