Two years ago when Ayisha Khansaheb, research assistant at NYU Abu Dhabi, started work on a historic study about the personal histories of elderly women in the UAE she wasn’t quite sure how she would get in touch with her research subjects.
Her goal was to talk to ordinary women in a specific age group — those born around the 1950s — a generation that has mostly lived out of the public gaze and is more conservative than tech-savvy Emirati women today who are often easy to track down on social media.
“We wanted to talk to women who maybe didn't go to school, who speak Emirati Arabic, and listen to them describe their own lives, in their own words,” said Khansaheb, a graduate of Zayed University who is now conducting research at NYUAD as part of the Kawader Research Assistantship Program for Emirati university graduates.
Finding research participants was the first challenge, she said. The second: getting them to talk about their lives to a researcher — an unusual request for women of that age from this part of the world.
Khansaheb, who was born and raised in Dubai, used personal connections from her grandmother, friends, and colleagues to scour the different Emirates for women over 60 from varying economic backgrounds who have seen first-hand how rapidly the UAE has changed since its formation 45 years ago.
I was looking for personal stories … that made each woman distinctive and fascinating .. but that also contributed to a more general narrative about how life in the UAE has changed for women.
The stories she collected over the next several months from 15 women living very private lives but who agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity have never gone beyond their close-knit family circles until now.
It’s important research, Khansaheb said, because much of the public’s perception of women’s roles and identities in the UAE comes from male members of society, some of whom, she noted, would have been more than happy to talk to her about how they believed women in traditional Emirati society lived over the years. The women themselves, on the other hand, were unsure at first what to make of this sudden interest in their life stories.
“I was looking for personal stories, for the nuances in the retelling of a life history that made each woman distinctive and fascinating in her own right, but that also contributed to a more general narrative about how life in the UAE has changed for women, and the complexities around that. I wasn’t looking for the more usual narrative as told by men about women,” Khansaheb explained.
Through hours of audio-recorded conversations Khansaheb discovered that women in the region now known as the UAE did have a lot of power and influence in those days but it “wasn’t out there in the media or society” because they mostly kept to themselves and lived and worked within their extended families or with other females.
“I believe that women of my generation are actually given a lot of influence and power to be part of the narrative, while women who are older might not have been given that chance,” Khansaheb concluded.
Food is such an integral part of everybody’s sense of identity, life, and culture.
Cooking up conversation
Khansaheb opened the doors to start a broader conversation about what life was like in the region in the 1960s and 70s by speaking to her interview subjects about a seemingly routine task in their daily lives: cooking. In the process of discussing traditional recipes and stories from the kitchen, the women’s experiences during the formative years of the country emerged.
“Food is such an integral part of everybody’s sense of identity, life, and culture,” said Marzia Balzani, NYUAD professor of anthropology and faculty mentor on the project. Food talk, she said, was the appetizer for a much deeper discussion “about their families, their marriages, how things have changed, what's changed for the better, and what's easier now.”
The interviews helped Khansaheb and Balzani weave a distinct and unexpected narrative about Emirati women’s roles in in the recent past, citing one example of a self-educated woman who taught herself how to garden and passed the knowledge along to her son, who then went on to establish his own organic farming business.
It’s hoped their collection of recipes, transcripts, and interview translations, which the women only agreed to share if their identities were not revealed, will soon be available to the public to ensure that Emirati female-centric narratives of the past aren’t lost with time.