ABU DHABI// Emirati women said they were afraid to approach foreign women because they had been taught not to. Expatriate women said they were reluctant to approach Emirati women because they did not want to make trouble. The attitudes were all about fear and misconceptions, which emerged during a recent symposium as the main barriers to closer relations between Emirati and expatriate women in the UAE.
The event, arranged by The National, stemmed from an innovative project by three Emirati students at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi to encourage women to be at the forefront of greater social integration in the UAE and help young Emirati women to step confidently into the workplace. "We would like women from both communities to know more about each other," said Farah Abdul-Hameed, 23, one of three founders of the project. "Because in conservative Emirati families, females have been raised that to talk to a stranger is not good. They are afraid of outsiders, and that's why they keep girls close. The new generation is thinking otherwise."
The lively dialogue at the women's meeting showed the project was welcomed on both sides. The Tawasol, or communication. programme, set up as a final graduation project, aims to promote awareness in the expatriate community of Emirati culture by extending Arabic hospitality. It especially reaches out to expatriate women who do not go out to work and are therefore less likely to come into contact with Emirati culture.
Miss Abdul-Hameed, who was born and raised in Abu Dhabi and lives with her mother, brother and three sisters, emphasised the importance of the project for young Emirati women. "Previously, parents would not agree for girls to be working so much because of the interaction with males," she said. "But Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi becoming the Minister of Economy [she is now Minister for Foreign Trade] showed that it is OK to interact with people."
The founders of the project, all public relations management students, including Abeer al Mahri, 21, and Fatima Salem, 21, met 10 expatriate women aged 16 to 60 on Wednesday for an open discussion. Seated around two tables, the women chatted politely before Miss al Mahri outlined the first stage of the project, which will take 30 women to Al Ain accompanied by 30 female students. Questions from the expatriates ranged from, "Do girls feel caught between tradition and progress?" to "Do only married women wear the veil, and why?" and "What of your culture would you like us to take on board?"
For many of the expatriate women, it helped dispel myths and get honest answers to cultural questions. "To be able to say that I mix with the local culture is fulfilling in itself," said Emma Cox, 38, a housewife and former supervisor in the aerospace industry who has been living in Abu Dhabi for a year. "That you've made an effort to embrace the culture is important, and we should learn to adapt."
Fear and misconceptions, most agreed, were the main barriers to closer relations between the women. As the conversations flowed over the obvious topics - how to dress appropriately, traditional UAE cuisine, the role of women in the family, how often Emiratis pray, marriage customs - the expatriates expressed surprise at some of the answers, including a suggestion by Emirati women that expatriates might try wearing abayas.
The Emirati women were unaware of just how little the expatriates knew about their culture and heritage, but were interested in how keen they were to learn. Miss Salem, who lives with her 12 brothers and sisters and enjoys photography in her spare time, said: "Personally, I learnt a lot about what do expatriates want to know about us, and what they already knew, and some misunderstandings about our culture and family lifestyle.
"But I discovered that I know a lot about them and they don't know things about us." Miss al Mahri, who like many Emiratis enjoys spending time with her extended family, saw similarities in the expatriate women's family life: "I learnt that although they are from different cultures, we are sharing the love of living in peace, living in close family relationships and respecting religions." Emiratis have become increasingly well-travelled in recent decades, and those who have studied abroad noted that their knowledge of the West has seemingly far outstripped Western expatriates' knowledge of the UAE.
Abdullah al Qubaisi, director of communication at Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, hailed the project as "very important for all of Abu Dhabi". "For Emiratis and also residents," he said, "it's about sharing values. We want to promote these values to all the audience, adult and children, expatriates and locals." Promoting Emirati culture is a key part of the Tawasol project and synthesises a desire for maintaining a strong Emirati identity in a sea of non-natives with a goal of many younger women becoming ambassadors for their country and stepping out into the workplace.
Miss Abdul-Hameed said: "Sometimes I do feel like a stranger in my country, but we can fix this by ourselves - to go out for coffee with my friends, to be in places and to make people know we exist. In work fields, we must know how to interact with males and females." She said a key element also would be for young Emirati mothers to pass on their cultural heritage to their children without downplaying the others they encountered.
Ms al Mahri said a continued effort to bring together Emirati and expatriate women would help close any cultural gap. The project gave women from both sides of the divide a chance to think "out of the box" and confront stereotypes, she said. Caroline Moubray, 48, a housewife and former chef in the UK who now lives in Abu Dhabi, came away with a sense of optimism for further integration in the UAE.
"I think that the Emirati girls were as curious about us as we were about them, and it was enlightening to see just how easy it was to sit and chat and how well we related to each other," she said. "My friends and I are very much looking forward to continuing with the project." Women interested in the project can join the Facebook group, Tawasol. email@example.com