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Emirati marriage norms reflect cultural and ethnic diversity

Marriage across the lines of tribe and clan remains a sensitive and controversial practice for many Emiratis.

The UAE is a multicultural society with more than 200 nationalities living and working together. This diversity has given the country its unique quality and contributed in many ways to its development.

While this cultural diversity is a blessing and provides many benefits, it can also be a curse and create conflict.

To outsiders, Emirati society may seem homogenous with a unified cultural identity, but the reality is different. Society is defined by various tribes and clans that come with diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. These tribes and clans follow their own cultural practices, traditions and norms.

All Emiratis share a common culture, a love for the country and loyalty to its leadership. In return, they are treated equally by leaders and hold equal rights under the law.

However, the diversity in society is visible in some areas, especially in marriage. Marriage proposals between Emiratis from different ethnic or tribal backgrounds are a sensitive topic and often stir debate and disagreement.

An Emirati once made a statement, which I find true, that many Emiratis don't consider themselves to be "racist", but when it comes to marriage, their actions can appear prejudiced. When Emiratis decide to get married, they choose someone who has a similar ethnic or tribal background. It goes even further, to investigating the mother's background in some cases.

Marriage, and the selection of suitable matches, is an example of socio-cultural practices that defy the assumption that Emiratis are a homogenous group with a single, homogenous culture.

Generally speaking, Emirati society is made up of three major groups. One group is formed by Emiratis who have a long history living in this land. They are called indigenous, or "pure", Emiratis. Another group is composed of Emiratis with Gulf origins, including Yemen and other Arab countries. The third group includes Emiratis with non-Arab origins from Iran, Baluchistan, the subcontinent, East Africa and other non-Arab countries.

Many Emiratis object to marrying someone from one of the other groups. Some consider it a personal preference, and not necessarily an act of discrimination.

However, other Emiratis do break the barrier and marry people from outside their own group. Such marriages do exist, often among people of similar economic status.

In some cases, mixed marriages result from love relationships and couples may risk rejection by their families. To varying degrees, families find it hard to accept these marriages because, traditionally, parents choose a wife for their son or accept a marriage proposal for their daughter.

This issue implies limited choices for young Emiratis who are searching for suitable partners.

A friend of mine once suggested that this rejection of people from other origins is "one of the main reasons for the intellectually unequal marriages" in our community.

In some cases, it also leads to feelings of inferiority, and that results in a lot of emotional damage and hatred, especially if people were rejected because of their backgrounds without considering their other qualities as individuals.

In a recent discussion on Twitter, an Emirati writer said that he had seen a shift in the situation. Indeed, people in the UAE are now more accepting of ethnic and cultural differences than ever before, especially among the younger generation of Emiratis.

However, he said that he wishes to see "one Emirati race", because if the situation remained the same, society would be divided from within like "isolated islands".

When the UAE was celebrating the 40th anniversary of the union, Taryam Al Subaihi, an Emirati social commentator, wrote an opinion article for The National calling for an "embrace of cultural diversity".

He suggested that this diversity could help to enrich our society and lead to social and cultural development.

Ayesha Almazroui is a journalism student from Abu Dhabi

On Twitter: @AyeshaAlmazroui

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