The development and maintenance of gender roles and stereotypes is inherently connected with the specific cultural legacy of the nation under consideration. In case of the Gulf States, and especially the United Arab Emirates, the concepts of gender identity are directly intertwined with religious factors, as the behavioral modes of both men and women, as well as the very definition of masculine and feminine identities, are based on the Islamic tradition. However, the growth of Western cultural influences is generally considered to have exerted a substantial influence on the gender stereotypes in the traditionalist Muslim societies.
The case of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has transitioned from the underdeveloped nation to one of the leading Middle East economic powers in no more than 30 years may be taken as indicative here. The increasing popularity of the Western cultural habits among the country’s prosperous elite, together with the influx of foreign migrants unaccustomed to the Arab and sometimes Muslim culture and traditions, may have been taken as the symptom of erosion of the UAE cultural traditions, including those connected with gender roles (Kreidler, 2012, p.138).
Clothing and fashion has been frequently identified as one of the main dimensions of gender representation in any society (Crave & Bovon, 2006). The society’s dominant values and symbolic language are often directly reflected in the clothing styles of its members (Dodd, Clarke, Baron, & Houston, 2000). However, in spite of the importance of this subject, research on the tangible effects of the cultural Westernization upon the dressing patterns and fashion habits of the Emirati women has as of yet been inadequate. Save for the study undertaken by Kreidler (2012), no integrative study of this aspect of the UAE society’s Westernization process has been produced. The purpose of this study is to address the gap in the professional literature by focusing on the changes in the Emirati women’s dressing habits, so that the more substantive aspects of gender issues in the UAE society may be addressed.
This study shall deal with the important problem posed by the interaction between traditional gender archetypes embodied in clothing and garment system, on the one hand, and the Western-oriented cultural globalization, on the other. To reach a definite conclusion on the subject matter, a quasi-experimental research design will be applied, as the issue of the changes in the gender relations in the UAE demands the proper attention to the opinions of the main actors of this change, i.e. the Emirati women themselves. Making use of the qualitative analysis instruments, the author shall provide the comprehensive perspective on the gender attitude transformations as expressed in clothing and fashion that may have brought about by the UAE rapid rise to the position of the one of the regional economic powers.
The main theoretical questions to be answered in this study will refer to the problem of the connection between gender construction and fashion patterns (i.e. how the participants in question relate their concepts of femininity to the respective clothing and fashion styles. In particular, such theoretical concerns as the identification of feminine values as expressed through clothing, the participants’ attitudes to the representation of the Western fashion in the present mass media structure, and the values ascribed by them to the traditional clothing as the expression of femininity.
Given the lack of the means to conduct a statistically valid quantitative experimental study, the researcher has decided to implement the phenomenological qualitative research approach for the purposes of this study. Proceeding from the research study’s assumptions, the social concerns of the selected sample of the research participants shall be attended to, including, first and foremost, their privacy’s protection, which is indispensable, in view of the concept of feminine dignity which is characteristic for the traditional Arab culture.
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As noted by Adelman (2008), the human culture processes and patterns involve not merely the interaction between human participants but the respective conceptualization of the inanimate objects that play important part in daily human life. Similarly, Joyce (2005) emphasizes the need for symbolic representation of the clothing objects with which a human being may cover its body, for the latter are the means by which humans are enabled the protection from the adverse effects of their environment. Therefore, the clothing is something more than the simple substitute for the hides possessed by other animals; it is one of the forms mediating the interaction of the human self with the external reality, both social and biological (Crave & Bovon, 2006).
In the traditional cultures, a body has been usually regarded as inferior to the true self incarnated in the human soul. However, the body has still been upheld as the line separating the human being from the reality distinctive from its own essence. Furthermore, in the traditionalist society, the individual was deemed to be a partial component of the society at large, so the collective identities were usually superior to the individualistic ones. This was especially the case with female members of the given society, for their individuality was valued even less than it was the case with the males (Arvanitidou & Gasouka, 2011).
This may partially explain the fact that the female costume was usually more ornate and elaborate in such societies than the male one, for in the traditionalist world, the external was generally considered less significant than the internal life of the soul. As women were viewed as inferior, it would be natural to assign to them the position of the bearers of the external symbols of the society’s life (Arvanitidou & Gasouka, 2011). However, such perspective may not exclude the fact that the impression of socially valuable information on individual bodies has always been extended to males as well, albeit in different visual forms.
The ritualistic aspects of the garment have been extensively invoked by the number of researchers. In particular, Arvanitidou & Gasouka (2011) point at the connection between bodily restrictions (or the lack thereof) that the clothing may imprint upon the body’s movements and the ritualistic concepts associated with particular movements. The connection between theoretical cultural knowledge (e.g. the cognition of specific gender rules) and the practical implementation of the social norms may be considered a tangible knowledge that is implicitly transmitted to each and every members of the given society (Arvanitidou & Gasouka, 2011).
Furthermore, Bourdieu (1984) reflected upon the role of garments as the components in constructing the subject’s social identity. While it is usually assumed that the clothing merely envelops the body of the already constructed social subject, this author believes that it is in fact the clothes that contribute to the very development of this identity (Bourdieu, 1984). Here the concept of “social skin” presented by Turner (2007) may be useful. Turner asserted that the absolute majority of human societies that has ever existed would appear to treat “the surface of the body not only as the boundary of the individual as a biological and psychological entity but as the frontier of the social self as well” (Turner, 2007, p.83). Not only the garments themselves but also the bodily movements and gestures associated therewith may constitute the social reality of the human being as a social self. Further, the identification of tangible patterns in clothing appropriate for the respective cultures may have a direct impact upon the representation of the social self within the boundaries of the relevant cultural environment.
The concept of fashion is directly connected with that of the clothing. As observed by Carter (1978), the fashion industry tries to paint a picture of an independent individual consciously selecting his/her own choices in clothing and appearance, with fashion companies being mere assistants thereto. However, in fact, the totalizing and even totalitarian discourse of fashion contributes to the development of tangible knowledge and the peculiar “social skins” here as well. The interpretation of the bodily visage serves to underscore the individual’s social status and standing in this society, which would allow the other members of the society to glimpse his/her position on the social hierarchy scale (DeLong, Salusso-Deonier & Larntz, 1980). Thus the consumption of the respective garment styles may be directly correlated with the society’s effective norms and regulations.
Given the importance of clothing as a social status’s indicators, it is no wonder that the majority of traditionalist societies, with their tightly defined social rank and gender hierarchies, would pay great attention to the issue of clothing restrictions. Crane & Bovone (2006) emphasize the regulating character of the uniform clothing, while the potential repercussions of their research may be extended to the other forms of restrictive clothing as well. As observed by the authors, the social restrictions placed on the clothing habits correlate well with the social text of the norms that regulate the life of a society at large (Crane & Bovone, 2006). That is why the issues of restrictive clothing form part and parcel of a social control structure as such.
Before turning to the subject of the female clothing in Islamic and Arab cultures, it is necessary to examine the problem of the expression of gender identity through clothing at large. Crane (2001) offers a convincing perspective on the controversial aspects of modern Western styles of clothing that may be both embodying “sadomasochism and pornography”, on the one hand, and presenting the picture of a woman as “empowered” equal to the masculine gender (Crane, 2001, p.19). The importance of clothing and fashion for defining femininity has always been evident in the majority of human societies but it is especially visible and controversial in the case of modern Islamic societies. The latter appear to be torn between the thrust of West-oriented globalization and the desires of significant constituencies of Muslim populations to preserve some important aspects of their pre-modern lifestyles. In this context, the problem of female clothing has become one of the main focuses for cultural wars and controversies, due to the deeply symbolic nature of this subject for the adherents of Islam.
Several contrasting opinions are presented in the current research on the origin and character of the gender-specific clothing restrictions that have become publicly associated with Islamic civilization. For instance, Hoodfar (1993) notes that the majority of clothing restrictions that are commonly connected with the Islam as a religion would in fact be imposed rather recently, when compared with the origins of Islam. In the author’s opinion, the imposition of the more restricting variants of the veil was directly connected with the growth of un-Islamic practices under the Safavid and Ottoman rulers, on the one hand, and the encroachment of the Western colonial powers, on the other. Hoodfar asserts that the development of the pre-Islamic tendencies among the ruling classes of the Safavid and Ottoman Empires contributed to the emergence of the veil as “a widespread symbol of status among the Muslim ruling class” (Hoodfar, 1993, p.6). Moreover, the author believes that the popular assumption of the essentially Islamic nature of the female restrictive clothing would be necessarily connected with the imposition of this association by the ideological apparatuses of the colonials (Hoodfar, 1993, p.6).
On the other hand, Moghissi (2002) observes that the attempts to depict the restrictive clothing as alien to Islamic practices would be faulty, as, at least in Iran, the clerical elite undoubtedly played a role in their cementing (2002, p.88). In Moghissi’s opinion, the post-modernist concepts of the overwhelming Western bias against the pre-colonial peoples should not blind the eyes of the researchers to the inherent traditionalism of the latter.
Within the context of the present discussion, the main attention should be placed on the review of the pre-modern clothing habits among the Emirati women and the changes that were caused by the introduction of globalizing and Westernizing influences in this field. In particular, the study by Kreidler (2012) may be instrumental here.
Kreidler (2012) observes that the usual scriptural references to the necessity of hijab (covering and seclusion) for Muslim women did not figure directly in Qu’ranic literature, so that the attempts of fundamentalist clerics to enforce the strict observations of this custom by modern Muslim women would not be in direct compliance with the Islamic norms. At the same time, the author refers to the notion of fitna, which may combine the qualities of ‘seductiveness’ and ‘anarchy’, as the possible justification for the majority of the present restrictive clothing norms in Islamic culture. According to Kreidler, the possible concerns with the excessive sexual freedom that would be the result of the complete women’s unveiling constitute an implicit determinant for the maintenance of the centuries-old traditions of hijab (Kreidler, 2012, p.140).
At the same time, the author pays utmost attention to the present changes in the Emirati women’s clothing patterns. In Kreidler’s opinion, the majority of the Emirati women strive to combine their devotion to the conservative clothing customs and the notions of glamour that are directly imported from the modern Western culture (2012, p.141). The synthesis of Western extravagance and the traditional abaya clothing forms would become the core of the several controversies referred to by Kreidler (2012), with the majority thereof centering upon the participants’ attempts to incorporate Western clothing styles (e.g. bridal gowns) in the traditional female clothing.
El Guindi (2003) undertook a study focusing on the significance of female veiling and the debate on the need for unveiling that may be relevant within the context of this discussion. In the opinion of the author, the concept of the veil may be inherently connected with the construction of the social space as sacred, which constitutes an integral part of the traditional Arab and Muslim culture (El Guindi, 2003, p.77). The author observes that a defining quality of the concept of a sacred space that is common in Muslim civilization is the ability of the representatives of Islamic cultures to engage in ritual “space conversion” (El Guindi, 2003, p.78) that may take place through an individual or collective participation in the prescribed Islamic rituals, such as obligatory daily prayers. Within the context of all these rituals, the integration of bodily rhythm with the socially valid religious norms and concerns may take place. The proper dress is thus of utmost importance to the faithful in such conditions, for the appropriate “dress code” may be an integral part of the ritual purification processes (El Guindi, 2003, p.78). However, the notion of dress appropriateness may not be limited to the ritual conditions as such, for the complex interweaving between mundane and sacred space continuums may be considered one of the defining features of the traditional Islamic culture. Just as the faithful Muslim would use religiously significant phrases as important meaning markers in the course of a conversation, so is the religiously observant Muslim woman expected to follow the prescribed dress code even beyond the context of explicitly ritualistic environment (El Guindi, 2003). Subsequently, hijab customs may be considered the gendered expressions of the notion of individual sacred space in the Islamic culture; thus, the observance or non-observance of hijab by Muslim women would be related to the prevailing concepts of Islamic behaviors as such.
A similar viewpoint is advanced by Al Qasimi (2010), with respect to the connection between the ‘abaya fashion’s proliferation among the upper and middle classes of the modern Gulf states, including the UAE. Referring to the Sunni Islam notion of tabaruj (immoderate excess), Al Qasimi presents the narrative of the increasingly restrictive opinions of the leading Sunni clerics on the contemporary female fashion, which is usually relegated to the category of “prohibited” (Al Qasimi, 2010, p.55). In this way, the traditional patriarchal mores may be safeguarded by the referral to religious norms. On the other hand, the definition of “prohibited” in some Sunni clerics’ works may not be as restrictive as it is usually asserted; for instance, Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawy observes that “Allah’s religion protects woman’s morals and decency, guards her reputation and dignity, and defends her chastity against evil thoughts” (quoted in Al Qasimi, 2010, p.55). Accordingly, in al-Qaradawy’s opinion, the strict fashion/dress code for women may not infringe on their ability to decorate themselves; it is only the expressions of gender identity that are deemed deviant in Islamic teachings (e.g. the adoption of “men’s wear, movement and behavior”) that are aimed against in traditionalist Islamic regulations on the female dress (quoted in Al Qasimi, 2010, p.54). Thus, the concept of female adornment (zina) could be still deemed as controversial in Sunni Islam, which is a dominant branch of Islam in the majority of Arab nations, including the UAE.
Al Qasimi’s argument does not stop here, however, as the author maintains that modern Emirati women have managed to breach the restrictive part of the traditional cultural norms, while still retaining their loyalty to the traditional clothing styles, such as ‘abaya. The author introduces the concept of “abaya-as-fashion”, counterpoising it to the “judicial ‘abaya” (Al Qasimi, 2010, p.63). In Al Qasimi’s interpretation, the “abaya-as-fashion” represents an ideological attempt at questioning the domination of the veil culture by utilizing the clothing elements that are both consistent and different from the traditional female dress (Al Qasimi, 2010, p.65). The author refers to the example of such contemporary UAE fashion shows as the Al-Motahajiba show to advance a claim that runs counter the usual representations of the de-veiling fashion trends as alluding to female liberation. On the contrary, Al Qasimi believes that the transformation of “abaya-as-fashion” into the fetishisizing activity would lead to the same type of hidden oppression that is the case in the majority of modern Western societies (Al Qasimi, 2010, p.66).
Finally, the issue of female fashion magazines in the Gulf States and their reflection in the professional literature may be presented. According to Torstrick & Faier (2009), the growth in popularity of Western fashions has found its expression in the frequent practice of on-the-order copying of the items featured in the fashion magazines, so that a “cost-effective solution to expensive fashion items” may be attained (Torstrick & Faier, 2009, p.99). Al Qasimi herself mentions that she has reviewed a variety of female fashion magazines that are currently available in the UAE when being there in December 2004 (Al Qasimi, 2004, p.70). In her opinion, these magazines may be deemed to be some of the main contributors to the development of “abaya-as-fashion” trends. Finally, Kreidler (2012) observes that the majority of modern ‘abaya’s designers stress both the continuity and departure of their products from the traditional representations thereof. As cited in one of the advertisements quoted in Kreidler (2012), “a modern take on the traditional abaya” would necessarily “challenge the norms of what an abaya traditionally represents” (Kreidler, 2012, p.141). Hence, the double character of the “abaya-as-fashion” phenomenon may be exquisitely glimpsed in this passage.
Therefore, it may be observed that the majority of the professional literature on the issue deals with general issue of the ‘appropriateness’ of the introduction of specific fashion’s elements into the traditional Muslim women’s garment, on the one hand, and of the development of the new, syncretic, fashion styles in the Gulf region, on the other. In the author’s opinion, the main problem of the majority of these studies is that they rely either on purely descriptive interpretation of the historical and contemporary fashion and dressing phenomena, or upon the analysis and evaluations of individual narratives that may not allow the researchers to provide a comprehensive picture of the main social actors’ (i.e. Muslim women’s) perspective on the subject matter.
This may be these studies’ main drawback, as this would not allow them to attain valid conclusions on the significance and appropriateness of the respective fashion trends from the subjects’ own point of view. With this in mind, the author deemed it necessary to turn from purely narrative-based to the qualitative quasi-experimental research design, with the particular emphasis being made on the subjects’ shared social experience with regard to the clothing and fashion issues.
Proceeding from the perspectives presented in the literature review above, it is necessary to dwell on possible research questions for this study at large. As these research questions should relate to the main subject of this inquiry, they would necessarily form a hierarchical relationship, with the more general research questions seamlessly leading to the more precise or specific ones.
Given the importance of the problem of representation of femininity in the printed and digital media of the contemporary era, it is necessary to regard the aspects connected therewith as the basics of this study. Accordingly, the focus on fashion magazines may be appropriate, for the advertisements contained therein may be assumed to exert special impact on the perception of the current fashion trends by the customers, as well as on the possible decision making activities in this field.
Hence, the first, and primary, research question may be formulated as follows: “Do the Western-style fashion advertisements in female magazines exert a cultural influence on the fashion choices of the Emirati women?” The null hypothesis in this context is that such an impact is either absent or negligible, with the alternative hypothesis being that the Western fashion styles are an important component of garment fashion choice for the average Emirati women. The validation of the alternate hypothesis would allow the author to draw definite conclusions on the validity of the study as such.
Following the aforementioned research question, the issue of the cultural appropriateness must be addressed. As there is a wide controversy on the impact of Western cultural values on the Emirati traditions and customs, one may expect that the respondents’ answers to this question may present a tangible dichotomy of the Emirati women’s perspectives on this aspect. Hence, the second research question to be examined is “Is the opinion of Emirati women themselves on the presence of Western fashion influences favorable or adverse?” The answer to this question would require the implementation of phenomenology-based qualitative research, which would entail the use of the interview methods.
According to Creswell (2007), the phenomenological research “describes the meaning for several individuals of their lived experiences of a concept or the phenomenon” (2007, p.57). While the narrative-based analysis that is utilized in the majority of the studies reviewed above proceeds from the perspective of an individual or a specific text as the unit of analysis, a phenomenological study makes use of the analysis of the common experiences of the number of individuals with respect to the single phenomenon, or “object” of human experience (van Manen, 1990, p.163). While the qualitative methods-based phenomenological research would be less efficient than a quantitative sampling of the statistically significant population, the limitations inherent in the present study’s financial requirements have led the researcher to select phenomenological approach as the best possible alternative to a purely quantitative inquiry.
For the purposes of this study, a survey of 25 Emirati women that have decided to buy one of the fashion magazines available in the respective bookstores of Dubai has been carried out. The common phenomenon binding the participants together would be their interest in modern fashion styles, as attested by their answers to the questionnaires offered. While the survey in question can scarcely be viewed as statistically valid, its results may still be representative of the specific segment of the Emirati female population that is interested in modern fashion and is able to condone diverse perspectives on the dress code and clothing issues. This form of nonrandom sampling may be operationally defined as the “judgment”, or “purposeful sample”, for the individuals in question were selected for the reasons of possessing specific characteristics that may be of interest to the researcher (Marshall, 1996, p.523).
In order to introduce further differentiation among the participants, the additional sub-samples among the selected participants were included. Three main variables of their social position have been introduced, encompassing the participants’ age (A), occupation (O), and educational background (EB). While no quantitative hypotheses on the possible correlation between the respondents’ answers to the questionnaire item were included, the incorporation of these variables in the research design would allow the researcher to draw some preliminary conclusions on the possible connections between these social indicators and the respondents’ individual perspectives on their shared experience.
All the respondents were notified of the possibility to refuse or omit answering some items in the questionnaires presented to them, as well as on their right to maintain their privacy. In so doing, the researcher attempted to conform to the basic research ethics’ requirements. Following these precautions, no participant refused to follow on the survey procedures, and thus the researcher would take this opportunity to express gratitude to them for doing it.
Given the focus of the current study, a semi-structured questionnaire form was utilized to enable more efficient processing of the qualitative data in question. The major features of a semi-structured questionnaire as a data collection form were defined in Cohen, Manion, & Morrison (2000), with the specific emphasis on its open-ended nature. According to Cohen, Manion, & Morrison (2000), a semi-structured questionnaire may be defined as “a series of questions, statements or items” that are presented to the respondent “to answer, respond to or comment on them in a way that she or he thinks best” (Cohen, Manion, & Morrison, 2000, p.248). In this way, the greater flexibility and customizability of the respondents’ answers may be decisively achieved. The latter opinion is best summarized in Cohen, Manion, & Morrison (2000), as the authors surmise that open-ended answer options “enable respondents to write a free response in their own terms, to explain and qualify their responses and avoid limitations of pre-set categories of response” (Cohen, Manion, & Morrison, 2000, p.248).
Nevertheless, it should still be observed that the common stereotype of the power parity between the interviewer and the interviewees in the context of qualitative research may still be questioned within the context of this study. In particular, the fact that the interviewer would still be able to set the tone of discussion as such may lead to significant, yet barely quantifiable, biases in the interviewees’ responses, which could in turn be explained by the participants’ view of the interviewer as (at least partial) authority figure in their interaction (Kvale, 2006). However, the open-ended format of the questionnaires selected by the researcher may be seen as a partial counterbalance to this problem.
A phenomenological qualitative research would require the utilization of a complex and sometimes convoluted structured analysis templates that would offer the researcher an opportunity to contrast and compare the respondents’ opinion on the phenomenon in question. Moustakas (1994) presents a simplified version of the more complicated Stevick-Collaizzi-Keen analysis method that is frequently employed in qualitative phenomenological studies. Given the scope of the present study, it would appropriate to utilize this method here.
Moustakas (1994) believes it necessary to begin the phenomenological analysis from the comprehensive analysis of the researcher’s own experience with the object under consideration. In this way, it would be possible to isolate purely subjective elements of the researcher’s own perspective, so that the participants’ responses may be compared more or less objectively. However, one should note that such procedure cannot be conducted in the seamless and integral manner, so that the researcher’s subjective bias may be minimized but not eliminated entirely. In this case, the achievement of such state is facilitated by the fact that the researcher has not previously read the same volumes of the Emirati fashion magazines that were read by the participants, so that the researcher’s individual opinion on the subject matter would not be biased by the receipt of the same data.
The analysis of the data themselves will proceed through the process of transcribing the participants’ filled questionnaires with the view to locating significant statements that would pertain to the subjects of fashion advertisements and the Western influences thereupon. The meanings formulated in such way will then be clustered into the themes that may be evenly spread across the respondents’ answers. In this way, the construction of a common description of the phenomenon in question may be enabled. In order to mollify any possible bias, the researcher may approach the same participants for the second time in the course of the study, so that the previous findings may be validated by the repeated application of the same data collection techniques (Moustakas, 1994, p.110). If any respondent may propose additional amendments to the previously analyzed data, all relevant changes will be introduced by the researcher.
Furthermore, the application of verification, validity and validation checks would contribute to the study’s academic rigor. The verification check was achieved through safeguarding the adherence of the research design to the basic demands of the phenomenological research approach, itself facilitated by the emphasis on the relevant concepts found in the professional literature (Moustakas, 1994). The study’s validation was attained via the implementation of the double checking procedure by the research participants (see above). Finally, the validity of this research would be guaranteed by the consistent application of the basic standards of scientific decency and the maintenance of the participants’ privacy and anonymity. Together, all these factors would enhance the study’s academic position.
For the purposes of the study, a semi-structured questionnaire with open-ended question formats has been presented to the participants. Given the study’s qualitative design, four questions were included in the questionnaire’s format:
- Do you consider fashion magazines to be an important source for your personal fashion choices? Please add a rationale for your answer.
- What is your attitude to the traditional Arab clothing habits?
- How may you evaluate the impact of Western clothing and fashion habits on your personal dressing style? Please add a rationale for your answer.
- Would you consider the following of Western-style fashion trends to be inappropriate for a Muslim woman? Please add a rationale for your answer.
Furthermore, as it was already discusses above, the participants’ age (A), occupation (O), and educational background (EB) were asked from each respondent in order to clarify possible patterns between their significant statements and respective demographic variables. This would allow the researcher to reach relevant conclusions on the possible association between demographic indicators and openness to Western fashion influences (or the lack thereof).
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