Illustration by Joaquin Kunkel

Navigating Stereotypes of Slavic Women in the UAE

The stereotype exists, but in what way are Slavic women at NYU Abu Dhabi affected by it?

I cannot keep count of the times I was approached by smiling men introducing themselves in broken Russian. As the small talk would progress they would always insist that Serbia was a cold region inhabited by beautiful women. Siberia and Serbia could not be farther apart, yet geography never seemed to matter in these types of conversations. It was how I looked that determined the nature of these men’s interest.
I did not mind the attention that I was receiving or dinners I was being offered until I started reflecting upon the phenomenon more. Who were the women who attracted this type of interest? What was the intention behind it? I decided to stop thinking about the issue, in fear of overgeneralizing my observations. As more time passed, though, I became more convinced of the persistence of the stereotype against Slavic-looking women.
For those who are unaware of the phenomenon, media and popular culture often portray Slavic women as gold diggers who are ready to steal your husband with their tight leopard-print dresses and lots of shiny accessories. Arabic movies and soap operas treat the issue similarly. In my Arabic class, we watched a great Lebanese movie called Where Do We Go Now. The plot centers around Muslim and Christian women who try to stop the religious conflict provoked by the men in their village. One of their attempts is to bring in a group of Ukrainian women who would distract their husbands from fighting through seductive dancing and general sex appeal. Kuwaiti soap operas, at times, represent Eastern European women as everything but acceptable marriage material. Think about Gulf Elite’s article on How to Date a Russian Woman as well. Ponder the media’s portrayal of Melania Trump — her achievements, looks and her accent.
The stereotype does exist, but in what way are Slavic women at NYU Abu Dhabi affected by it?
Emina Osmandzikovic is a senior from Bosnia. She is well aware of the prejudice against Slavic women, but said that the stereotype can be positive at times.
“There are many stereotypes about Eastern European women and some of them can be positive — women that are beautiful, smart and independent. It helps you establish the context you are from. A lot of people already visited the region, so it is not like these stereotypes are unfounded,” explained Osmandzikovic.
She said that on campus there is no such thing as a predetermined image of Slavic women because in an international setting, stereotypes simply cancel each other out. Off campus, however, the situation changes.
“There is a stereotype that Slavic women are blonde beauties chasing after very rich men in Dubai. This is a notion you have to fight against in order to prove yourself worthy in the work setting, for example. You are competent, not because you are a beautiful Eastern European girl, but because you are in general,” said Osmandzikovic.
Victoria Blinova, a senior from Russia, agreed that stereotyping exists, but did not think that it differs from any other type of prejudice people hold. She believes that stereotypes are inevitable in a country with so many expats because humans love to find patterns. Like Osmandzikovic, she thinks that the stereotype is not something women encounter on a daily basis, but only in particular contexts. Her Arab friends dated Russians.
“This is when stereotypes would come into play. When my friend would tell people he dated a Russian, they would wink at him, and he would always say that his girlfriend was not that type of Russian: that she went to university and tried really hard to succeed in life. I heard a couple of jokes about Russian models coming to Dubai looking for husbands as well. I was never upset; it is just one of the million stereotypes that you can hear,” said Blinova.
Both Osmandzikovic and Blinova are fluent speakers of Arabic. Knowing the language is a tool for fighting the negative image one may get based on their looks, they believe.
“The situation changes if you speak Arabic. I think it becomes better because you seem career-oriented and genuinely interested in the culture. It helps break the ice,” said Osmandzikovic.
Blinova added that people might be confused by her speaking the dialect.
“When I speak Emirati and people see I am not Arab, they think I have family or romantic ties to someone local. You can be intertwined with the culture even if not through personal relationships, I think.”
Emphasizing education is another way to avoid being placed into a certain negative category.
“My education is my shield, so I always mention it. It helps the way you are perceived and bridges the gap between the stereotype and reality. You also need to be very patient when educating others,” added Blinova.
Aleksandra Markov, a sophomore from Serbia, had similar experiences. She recounted an incident when she and a group of Eastern European friends were mistreated at a party.
“When we said where we came from, this guy gave us such a dismissive and suspicious look. He couldn’t believe that we were students. Why? Because we were from Serbia, Moldova and Bulgaria? My friends wanted to show their student IDs, but I just decided to leave,” Markov recounted.
“Even when I am in a mall, talk to people, they have certain assumptions about my reasons for being here. No one assumes I am a successful working woman, for example. I don’t look like a CEO. I am usually [considered] a flight attendant in search for a rich man,” said Markov. When I asked her about her feelings, she paused to think.
“As long as you know this is not your context and this is not you, the generalization cannot hurt you. I don’t think about it, I don’t allow it to affect me. Sure, I felt objectified here, but I never let it get to me,” she concluded.
Oleksandra Rovinska, a sophomore from Ukraine, is also aware of the prejudice, but was never seriously affected by it. She said that she knew what type of image Eastern European women have abroad prior to coming to the UAE.
“When Ukraine was hosting Euro 2012, there was a scandal because the media advised women not to let their husbands to go to Euro 2012, because their marriage would be under threat. It was a big thing and I understood that certain stereotypes existed,” wrote Rovinska.
She believes that the stereotype is mostly reflected in interpersonal relationships between the two sexes, and between two cultures. Certain misunderstandings of intentions and values can arise as a consequence.
“By presenting yourself as an Eastern European woman, you instantly get a number of traits attributed to you, including being liberal. There is a certain expectation about your behavior, and thus, a change in the way you are treated. For some reason people forget that Eastern European women can also be conservative,” Rovinska shared. She said that Slavic-looking women receive a lot of attention, but that it is sometimes unwanted.
“Because of cultural differences and societal expectations, this interest is often short-term and not serious,” Rovinska concluded.
Markov, like Rovinska, thinks that she will stay and work in the region for a couple of years. She knows that societal opinions do not change overnight, but she is optimistic and believes that the negative portrayal of Slavic women can be ameliorated.
“Maybe if there were more top-level women from our region, things would change gradually. Why not? Things start small, so I always bring up the fact that I am a college student and that I am not interested in whatever these people are looking for and I just leave. I hate when people have a wrong perception of me, so I fight to change it,” concluded Markov.
Kristina Stankovic is Senior Features Editor. Email her at
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