Greensboro native explores womens’ new roles in Middle East
Rhiannon O’Conner, a 22-year-old UNC-Asheville education student who grew up in Greensboro, has always wanted to shatter stereotypes about women’s roles in society. With the United States becoming more engaged with the Middle East, she also wants to challenge stereotypes about Arabs.
So it was natural that she signed up to attend the ‘Women as Global Leaders’ conference at Zayed University in Dubai, United Arab Emirates in mid-March, along with seven other students from Asheville.
Women’s roles are changing rapidly in this Maine-sized nation on the Persian Gulf and next door to Saudi Arabia, as the gravitational pull of traditional Islam tugs against the demands of modernity.
In some ways, women’s opportunities and experiences are similar in the United States and the United Emirates, she says in a telephone interview. In other ways, there are jarring differences.
‘“In the UAE, they’re allowed to do things, but they’re very protected by the men in their life,’” she says. ‘“There was one girl that wanted to study abroad. Her father told her: ‘If you get married you can travel abroad with your husband.’ Being a woman who has gone abroad on my own, it’s a little shocking to me that it would depend on my father or my husband whether I could travel.’”
At the same time, O’Conner says young women in the United Arab Emirates have advantages over women in Middle Eastern countries with more repressive cultures. Hardly any of the restrictions on women’s political, economic and social participation written into neighboring Saudi Arabia’s legal code exist in the United Arab Emirates. There are both conservative and liberal Muslims in the region, and family background often determines the extent that women cover themselves.
‘“Women in Dubai are not suffering from the same type of oppression as women in Saudi Arabia,’” O’Conner says. ‘“Women have a lot of different freedoms. A lot of them are going to the university and getting great jobs as technicians and teachers.’”
As a student teacher, O’Conner plans to apply her experience from the conference to future teaching moments.
‘“If I ever have a student who has an anti-Muslim sentiment, I can say: ‘This is how it works.’ I can say that there is a range of interpretations within the religion. I have personal experiences to use instead of something that’s in a textbook.’”
There are some interesting twists in the class structure and gender relations in Dubai.
O’Conner says she learned that only 20 percent of those who live in the country are citizens. Guest workers from countries such as Lebanon, Colombia and India make up much of the labor force. The government is trying to encourage intermarriage between native Emiratis and foreign residents to widen citizenship. Even so, prospective students must hold a valid national identity certificate or United Arab Emirates passport to be accepted at Zayed University, the institution responsible for training the country’s future political and economic elite.
Among those who hold national citizenship, women are pursuing higher education with far more enthusiasm than men.
‘“A lot of the male nationals were not taking the same opportunities,’” O’Conner says. ‘“The female nationals were becoming very educated and wanting to move abroad. Just like in the United States, they don’t want to marry a man who has less education than they do. The administrators of Zayed University were very concerned about it.’”
During the five-day trip, O’Conner decided to escape the conference for a couple of hours to experience life outside the university bubble. She took a taxi out of the new city, with its lavish hotels, modern infrastructure and tourist accommodations, and went to explore the old city.
Dubai’s old city is full of open-air markets. Houses cling close together and laundry hangs out from balconies, she says.
‘“Within the touristy part you never heard the call to prayer,’” O’Conner says. ‘“We heard it, and it was really amazing. They do it five times a day. I actually thought the entire world would stop, but it didn’t. Those that wanted to pray, prayed, and those that didn’t, didn’t.’”
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