Department of Anthropology

Graduate Student Spotlight: Deina Rabie

Tue, September 5, 2017
Graduate Student Spotlight: Deina Rabie

The Department of Anthropology is excited to share the following interview with Graduate Student Deina Rabie, conducted by Elizabeth de Marigny. We will continue to highlight the amazing works our students are doing, in Austin and around the world, a few times each semester.

Your research focuses on the impact of English language acquisition among Emirati women in the UAE, why did you decide on this topic in particular?

My dissertation question took shape during my time teaching English in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, at a college for Emirati women. When I first arrived in Abu Dhabi, the city was teeming with people from all around the world. Yet, Emiratis, although visible by their distinct national dress, tended to keep to themselves. It was as though they were living in a parallel universe to all the foreign workers inhabiting the city. Likewise, though the student body at the college was only Emirati women (Emirati men had their own campus), the faculty and staff were mixed and came from about 60 different countries. Instruction was completely in English, and students had to do intensive English language courses during their first year of college.

Having already taught EFL in several different countries, I was used to teaching adults who had already gone to university in their native languages and wanted to improve their English to increase their chances of employment in today’s global economy. However, in the UAE, Emiratis were being expected to make a switch from English as a foreign language they were learning in school to the primary language of higher education. They weren’t learning English for English’s sake; their entire success at university and future prospects suddenly depended on it! I immediately began to wonder about the social and political trends pushing Emiratis, in particular Emirati women, in the direction of English preference in order to advance and sustain the UAE’s position as a competitive entity on the global market.

You have noted that the mobility of Emirati women have traditionally been governed by Islamic and patriarchal gender norms. How has the diversification of the UAE impacted this?

Yes, mobility among Arabian Gulf women in general is mediated by Islamic and patriarchal gender norms. Traditionally, Emirati women’s literal mobility outside of domestic spaces and kin networks has required the permission and at times accompaniment of male kin and adherence to norms of modesty. What I have noted in the UAE, and other studies have described in other parts of the Middle East, is women experience different degrees of social and economic independence as they start to navigate higher educational channels and avail of increased work opportunities. Such experiences, in turn, impact women’s comportment, disposition, and general life choices, which, I believe, have significant impacts on familial structures.

This is a significant time to be doing this research on Emirati women’s mobility. The UAE, like other Arabian Gulf States, is described as a welfare state; this means that profits from oil wealth and various governmental subsidies have been channeled to Emirati families through male kin, thus underscoring patriarchal and tribal networks. However, as oil wealth dwindles and as the UAE seeks to diversify its economy away from petrol, welfare benefits are also decreasing for families. Moreover, over the last twenty years, families have been slowly shifting away from extended to nuclear family units, yet the divorce rate among Emirati couples under 40 is rated as one of the highest in the world at around 50%. This leaves many women in new social positions that were not so common before.

Accordingly, I am interested in the ways in which the UAE’s economic development strategies and Emirati women’s experiences of mobility are mutually contingent. For example, when I first started teaching in the UAE, I found many of the young eighteen to twenty-year old Emirati women I was teaching not always that invested in succeeding academically. Attending college or university was a means for them to get out of the house and socialize with friends they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to meet. I later started teaching older working women in their late twenties and thirties. Many of these women were either divorced, widowed or single and had begun to channel their energy into their professional lives. These women were markedly more proficient in English and keen to integrate and forge relationships with foreign expatriates at work and surrounding communities.

You have recently been awarded a National Science Foundation Dissertation Improvement Grant. In your application you talk about code switching between English and Arabic, can you expand on this, in particular how different environments influence these switches?

The UAE is highly diverse, and this is what makes it a really fascinating place to study. As of its 2015 census, the total country’s population was 9.16 million people, 85% of whom were foreign residents hailing from over 190 different countries. So UAE national citizens are in fact a minority in their own country. Although Arabic is the official language of the country, English is a kind of lingua franca spoken to varying degrees of proficiency by most residents and UAE nationals to facilitate their day-to-day interactions. In addition to that, approximately 70 other languages are spoken as native languages by the country’s foreign residents. However, the country’s diversity is mitigated by the fact that people tend to live and work in ethnic enclaves. So, a good proportion of people in the service industry, for instance, are from the Philipines. Most domestic workers are female and Southeast Asian. Laborers are predominately South Asian males, while white collar professionals tend to be from Western countries, the Middle East, and South Asia. Thus, language use becomes very domain-specific as residents learn to employ different languages and language varieties in different places. For example, many residents learn Hindi and Urdu phrases to interact with taxi drivers or certain turns-of-phrases in Philippine English for service transactions.

My focus on the role of language in facilitating people’s movement in this hyper-diverse environment is what renders this a linguistic anthropology project. In particular, I focus on the role of English as an infrastructure in the UAE. That is, I consider language use, ideologies, and policies as structuring entities that create channels and networks that facilitate people’s social and economic movement. In so doing, I am able to home in on the strategic governmental policies, pedagogies, and workplace initiatives that foreground English as not just a transactional lingua franca, but the language of corporate engagement. In addition, I conceptualize the way in which the policies around English create material and spatial infrastructures—schools, universities, workplaces, learning materials, and other types of media—which become actual trajectories that people navigate.

As an anthropologist, however, I am primarily concerned with engaging with the kind of ‘thick description’ that would capture the impact of these policies on the lived experiences of the women of my study. Thus, my main field method will be participant observation. In addition, I plan to employ different methods used in linguistic anthropology and other language-focused fields to record my research informants’ linguistic interactions with other interlocutors in different places, as well their perceptions of different languages and their speakers. This is where I also plan to investigate the kind of bilingual strategies, like code-switching, that speakers employ to facilitate communication and mark their identities in different contexts.

In your opinion, how does the acquisition of the English language advance women’s economic and social equality?

I am not sure yet whether I can claim that knowing English advances women’s economic and social equality because my response may be influenced by Western ideals of what that should look like. Thus, my main focus is on the ways English acquisition through higher education is impacting Emirati women. There are, indeed, studies on development in the Middle East, which focus on the ways educational initiatives contribute to women’s social and economic advancement. Interestingly, some studies have found that in countries where there is a significant educational gap between men and women, women’s education at the secondary school and university levels might contribute to bridging this gap but does not necessarily encourage women to go out into the workplace.

In the UAE, there are clear policies and discourses being projected about the importance of English in fostering male and female Emirati global citizens who can actively participate in the country’s multinational workforce while simultaneously maintaining Emirati Arab and Islamic values. English-medium higher education makes this possible for Emirati women. Whereas men can get a job with a secondary school diploma, women’s access to the workplace is through higher education. That is why the rate of women with higher education degrees is higher than men. In fact, many of the Emirati women I personally know went on to get Master’s degrees long before their husbands even finished college. However, as I mention in an earlier question, I have found that women’s investment in English acquisition and education as a means of professional advancement depended on other factors like social and marital status, and economic need.

So, what’s more interesting for me is to examine the different ways English influences women’s lives as it purportedly facilitates their social and economic mobility. For example, I would like to observe the kinds of relationships Emirati women forge through domains of English use, whether in classrooms, workplaces, or even social media. One domain I’m really excited to research is this new trend of life coaching for women. Many life coaching meetups are organized for Emirati and expatriate women and tend to be conducted in English because of the mixed nationalities present. It will be especially interesting to observe how Emirati women might acquire new modes of self-expression through this novel genre of self-help. Hence, by focusing on Emirati women’s mobility through different English-mediated spaces and modalities, against the backdrop of the UAE’s greater economic transformations, I can arrive at some conclusions related to how these experiences have engendered shifts in women’s social and economic conditions.

If any, what are some challenges that you have faced while working on this research project?

The main challenge I faced was trying to get sponsorship from an institution in the UAE so that I could return and do my research. In order to stay the year in the UAE, I needed some kind of research visa, but there isn’t much of a precedent for that sort of thing over there. It is much easier if one is already living and working in the country to be able to secure research permissions, especially if studies are archival or focused on education and teaching. Indeed, a couple of university research committees said they would be willing to take me on as a part-time teacher when I arrived and to approve classroom-related studies, but the idea of mixed-methods ethnographic research seemed to be a bit nebulous. I was finally very fortunate to get sponsored by New York University in Abu Dhabi as a visiting graduate student. So NYUAD will be my home base during the next year, but I will conduct research with Emirati informants in domestic, social, educational and work environments.

Your research findings will be shared with the National Archives of the United Arab Emirates in order to support research initiatives on enhancing women’s and gender equality. This is a really amazing partnership, how did this collaboration come to be?

Yes! During my last year in the UAE, I taught a course called Historical Perspectives of the Modern Middle East, which covered the history of the region from the Ottoman Empire to some of its modern-day nations. During the unit on the UAE, we had the students do some training with the UAE National Archives’ Oral History Project team. Since the UAE is only 45 years old, there are Emirats who were alive before the seven emirates of the UAE unified into one nation and became independent from British rule. The Oral History Project was established as an initiative to record oral histories of elderly Emiratis who were alive before the discovery of oil and unification. Many of my students still had living grandparents who used to be pearl divers, fishermen, Bedouin traders, and weavers, which is just so fascinating! So the students were trained on how to prepare interview questions and record their elderly relatives. Because the UAE has experienced such rampant development in such a short time, these oral history narratives capture a life that seems so remote and untenable for many younger Emiratis. It was a really validating experience for my students to be a part of that. And for me, too! Through this collaboration, I formed connections at the UAE National Archives and obtained approval to conduct aspects of my research there. In return, I will contribute some of my findings to state research projects on enhancing women’s employability.

Concerning women’s economic and social empowerment, is there a generational gap that divides Emirati women in the UAE? If so, can you tell us a little more about it?

There is a generational gap that divides Emiratis, both women and men. Elderly Emiratis in their 60s and 70s are illiterate and can only speak Emirati Arabic. Men and women in their fifties were the first to have access to primary and secondary school education. However, it’s the ones who were born in the 1970s and later who have had access to the country’s higher education institutions established in the 1980s and 1990s and who are, in turn, more proficient in English. Moreover, unlike men, women have not had the same freedom to attend university abroad though the situation is changing nowadays. Hence, Emirati women have experienced phenomenal intergenerational change over the last fifty years. These changes will continue as the UAE gradually shifts away from an oil-based welfare economy for its citizens and the stakes become higher for Emirati women to ensure economic stability for themselves and their families. This is what makes this research quite timely, in my opinion. Though my focus is on Emirati women’s particular experiences of mobility within a multinational oil economy, transnational work environments and their attendant labor flows are becoming a way of life in many parts of the world. Examining how this group of Arab, Muslim women negotiates these experiences will, I hope, add to conversations on gender and the reach of global English in evolving global settings.

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