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Illustration by Liene Magdalēna

The Fragile Virtues of Womanhood

If we want a society made up of strong, intelligent women, we have to do better than emphasizing their reputations as a currency of their value.

A woman is like paper – a saying commonly heard in Emirati society. The meaning behind the phrase is that it only takes one blemish or mark to ruin her entirely. Thus, she must be committed to upholding her stature and reputation in society, as it is her virtue.
As exemplified in many patriarchal societies, a woman’s worth lies in the preservation of her chastity and her social conduct is put under a microscope. If a woman deviates, she is more harshly punished and in order to protect and preserve her virtue, sheltered upbringing is given great importance. On the other hand, a man’s worth or ability is rooted in his experience outside the realm of comfort and protection. His agency is valued. Gendered virtues create a double standard by nature of their opposition.
A number of female Emirati students shared their thoughts on this matter. When asked what it meant to have virtue as a girl in her culture, Maha said, “the first thing I can think of is ‘virginity’ to be honest, ‘piety’ in the sense of how religious you are. Other words that come to mind: ‘untouched.’ Your honor is very much your status, as well, and that coincides with virtue.”
The ideal of sexual innocence or ignorance is a common social notion as a sign of being “unspoiled.” Perhaps this has to do with the ability to be overpowered by men, to give them a sense of control by being the first through marriage. When trying to comprehend the seemingly massive pressure of female virtue, Fatima referred me to the quote, “most tradition is just peer pressure from dead people.” However, traditions have purpose and stem from mechanisms of survival, or social organization and cohesiveness.
Fatima recalled her own experiences growing up and said, “... you’d see them [parents] treating your brother differently. He’s allowed to go out, but you’re not. He’s allowed to have [friends who are girls] but when you want to have guy friends, that’s considered shameful.”
She continued, “when I asked why he [my brother] had [female friends], he said ‘I’m different. You’re carrying the weight of the family. The girl is like white paper. If anything touches her, then she gets ruined.'”
A family’s honor rests on the shoulders of its women. She is central to the family’s structure in a collective-minded culture; she is not an individual first. Another student, Maryam, mentioned that people often ask how her family allows her to do certain things when judging the agency of women in her lifestyle choices regarding travel, dress or education. The more freedom she has, the less it seems her parents or family care for her; sometimes this relationship is even interpreted as a sign of neglect.
More of the responsibility and pressure to uphold tradition rests in the hands of women. Due to the role of motherhood a woman has a closer relationship to her child and therefore her child’s upbringing. Despite the speed at which the UAE has witnessed technological and economic advancement, this process has only made tradition or knowledge all the more valuable. Some fear that a rise in the type of individualism that views as more than a symbol for their families would cause a loss of cultural heritage. Due to the vitality of the family in traditional culture, the import of individualism is less than it might be elsewhere.
It is often perceived as a danger for women to be too free. There is a social component to the danger of individual reputation and freedom that a woman is subjugated to. The fear of being gossiped about is instilled in many women from a young age. The idea governing this mentality is that “the less you give people to say, the better.” If you are more individualistic, you are less likely to fit in and thus a target for defamation.
So, are gendered virtues necessarily negative?
Some see the gendered expectations of having a collective mindset as an honor or duty. The view that female virtue is a misogynistic concept is too simple. As the entire notion directly acknowledges women’s power, it does not underestimate it. Too much agency may threaten the so-called natural role of women to be a nurturer and teacher to her children. It is natural to expect female virtue to arise out of women’s the biological disposition to bear and rear children. If one does not believe in the biological, experiential or cognitive differences of the sexes, then, naturally, one may not believe in their differing expectations.
However, if overprotection is a virtue of parenting when it comes to raising girls, it may threaten their ability to live a healthy, fulfilling life. The psychological effects of highly controlling parents include a higher risk of anxiety disorders, dependency and lower self-esteem. Fear or shame are not effective deterrents or tools for women to lead the best quality life.
Choice of dress is arguably the most indicative aspect of a woman’s virtue upon first glance. The abaya and shaila make up the traditional Emirati woman's garb. To some, it is a symbol of conservatism or decency, a conformation to cultural norms or a devotion to their faith. More often than not, an Emirati woman does not take off her daily attire in the way a man could. He can opt for a t-shirt and jeans as a more casual alternative to the kandoora, but her clothing and physical presentation is tied to her virtue and it must be presented consistently. Once again, there is more pressure on women to be the symbols of tradition, virtue and propriety than on their male counterparts.
The hijab is sometimes seen to be a symbol of protection to a woman’s virtue; as it acts as a barrier between her and unrelated men, as well as a bridge between herself and the divine. Depending on one’s religious interpretation, some view it as an Islamic obligation. Often puberty is seen as the milestone in a girl’s physical development when the responsibility to dress modestly begins.
Maha recalls her experience of first adopting the veil, “My mom was like, You don’t leave the house without a shaila on your head. I felt like my childhood just ended, I was only 12... Imagine a kid being afraid to get their period. Just because they don’t want to cover up. Just because they don't want to be seen like [they are] officially sexual. That really made me grow up overnight.”
Ultimately the sexulization of women becomes an inescapable social phenomenon and does not arise from the woman’s own agency. Moreover, it is not realistic to expect women to be fully responsible for how they are looked at. Most women know that the abaya does not stop you from being harassed or catcalled in public spaces by men. Despite the multitude of interpretations on the veil’s utility, its imposition is not viewed honestly. Most people would claim it as being a choice, but more often than not, there are sometimes severe societal consequences to not wearing it.
However, tradition should be evaluated on its own utility and merit in order to not perpetuate harmful or fruitless cycles of behavior with no real, deep or meaningful justification or benefit. Often when children or young girls protest the ideology of reputation as indicative of their virtue, parents will say, we don’t agree with it, but it’s the way it is here. But what does this rhetoric teach young people? Out of fear of being socially ostracized, each time a parent says that to their child, they perpetuate an empty tradition.
Despite the desire for more day-to-day individualism as women, both Fatima and Mariam express their gratitude for the empathy of their mothers. “My mom did give [me] freedom that she didn’t get from her mother. [She] was restricted a lot. She was not allowed to dance, to go out, she was ‘locked up’ in a way.”
Women have made sacrifices for the sake of upholding virtue. Undoubtedly with each generation comes change in some form. Fatima continued, “My mom did allow us [my sisters and I] a lot more [than she was allowed]. She let me come to this university [NYU Abu Dhabi] which was a really big push for her. She stood against all of my family members including my father. She said, ‘I’ll let all the bullets hit me and you walk with your head up. I’m gonna face the consequences, just go.’”
The image of Emirati women is changing. The UAE has made efforts to progress women’s rights in many sectors as the country aims to integrate more women into the workforce. Women are being celebrated for breaking new barriers as the country witnesses a rise in female leadership. According to an article from Entrepreneur Middle East, today Emirati women make up 70 percent of all university graduates in the UAE, 46 percent of UAE university graduates in STEM, and 50 percent of the UAE’s Space Program employees.
So, where does our existing model of female virtue fit today? Women are taking charge of the landscape at such a fast pace that reputation suddenly seems an invalid measure of their virtue. How much do these gender-specific virtues help women excel in the changing, modern world?
They say, a woman is like glass, she is easily broken. Or, a woman is like white paint, one black drop can turn the whole pot grey. If a woman’s virtue is so fragile or easily tainted then what is it made of in the first place? What about teaching women about individual agency and moral integrity? If the reputation of a woman is held in such high regard, then what of her character? Much of how we judge to be a virtuous woman has to do with external perceptions. The way she dresses, the evocation of innocence, her reputation. Focusing too greatly on the superficial takes value away from what’s beneath.
If we believe that women have much more to offer, we in turn must offer them more. If we want a society made up of strong, intelligent women, we have to do better than emphasizing their reputations as a currency of their value.
Elyazyeh Al Falacy is a staff writer. Email her at
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