An American Dean Develops an Emirati Cultural Lens

After thirty years in student affairs, with the last decade as vice president of the large, urban, public University of Louisville, I embarked on an adventure to serve as dean of students of Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates.

My cultural immersion began when I met the Zayed student-affairs staff of 35 divided between campuses in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The largest number were Emirati citizens along with expat Arabs, Brits, South Africans, Canadians, and only one or two Americans. My diverse group shared neither professional preparation nor common vision.  English was the common language but at more than one staff meeting discussion began in English and after a few minutes broke into energetic Arabic.  Usually someone translated a synopsis for me.

Learning about the students I would deal with daily pushed me immediately into the Emirate’s Arab, Bedouin traditions. The university relationship with students, while never defined as such,  is clearly expected to be   “in loco parentis “ meaning “instead of a parent.” We jokingly modified the phrase to “in loco parentis on hyper” meaning the parental role we were expected to take on was supposed to be hypervigilant.

In the United States, the Supreme Court has said repeatedly that the relationship between university and student is not one where the university is responsible for parental-style oversight. In the Emirates though, the cultural expectation was that women college students are to be protected, and that this protection of the women’s honor is sacrosanct.

I soon learned that the protection of the honor of women is enmeshed in all aspects of the life of a female Emirati university student. Her arrival at campus, her modest dress, her relationships with classmates, involvement in activities, and classroom decorum are all shaped by the expectation that she will not in any way dishonor herself and in doing so, dishonor her entire family. The parental role of protecting a student’s honor is passed on from the family to the university during institutional hours.

My staff managed student admission, registration and withdrawals and monitored attendance in every class. Poor classroom attendance resulted in a student’s dismissal. Students could not leave campus between classes. A high wall surrounded the campus and a sophisticated electronic check-in and out system was based on individual student schedules.  Departures from campus before the end of a student’s classes for the day required special permission from the student’s male guardian, commonly her father, brother or sometimes even husband. Students could also be excused for illness or when a class was unexpectedly cancelled, but had to wait until the enrollment staff person made contact with the guardian to gain approval of the earlier campus exit.  I would regularly see a seated line of young women covered head to toe in jeweled black abayas and headscarves tapping a high-heeled designer shoe impatiently while a staff member repeatedly dialed the guardian’s cell phone.

My staff also managed students’ voluntary withdrawals. Students could not do this themselves: Their male guardian had to come to the campus. When this happened, my Emirati enrollment services staff would apply their almost professional-level detective skills to unearth the real reason for the abrupt withdrawal. Our goal was to keep the student at the university.  Sometimes the reason given by the fathers was the daughters’ imminent marriage, which had just been arranged by male members of the students’ and the groom’s family. The marriage could sometimes come about quickly because the young woman was being disciplined after being found to be involved on the Internet or even on the phone with a young man not selected by the family.

In cases of a possible budding Internet or telephone romance, the decision to marry the daughter off quickly to someone selected by the family was done to keep the reputation of the family and protect the student‘s honor. Occasionally, a guardian decided the student was not taking university work seriously enough.  In one case, we had a student certain she was possessed by a jinn, or bad spirit, and her family had decided to leave their current home where the jinn resided and move outside of the university district.

Having Emirati women on staff was a blessing as only they could typically convince the guardian to reconsider and allow the student to stay, or even return after the wedding and often a months-long honeymoon.  I can remember being irritated at students who came in and announced an imminent wedding.  It soon became clear to me, though, that the students often only had a day or two more notice then we did. Despite the quick decision-making the emotions of these students were not different from those of American young women preparing for marriage. In most cases, our students were happy and excited by their forthcoming weddings. The student would be in great anticipation of the imminent romance of the wedding ceremony and honeymoon adventure despite knowing very little about the groom.

The bride-to-be was occasionally a bit apprehensive but confidant that her family had selected the groom that would fulfill her dreams of romance, children and lifelong love. She was confident that she would fall in love with her husband soon after the wedding and a happy married life would ensue.  Due to the close relationships we had with our students, we were regularly invited to engagement parties and weddings and were often the only non-Emirati women present at these traditionally gender separate events. The jewels and designer dresses of the Emirati women attendees made the gowns and jewels flaunted at the Oscars look conservative!

Our Emirati or Arabic-speaking student counselors also found that students could be troubled by parental divorce, problems of their siblings and conflicts borne of “westernized values” creeping onto Arab households. We also learned that when a father took a second, or sometimes third wife, family dynamics were destabilized. Often the university student was expected to understand that her mother might be the recipient of less time and attention from her father, at least initially, and that the daughter was expected to take more responsibilities for siblings or household management until the family stabilized. The entire family, including our student, faced a transition unique to polygamous families when a students’ mother moves from sole wife to second wife.  We were told that second wives are often considered a “love” wife since the husband often selects her himself, the first wife having been selected for him by his family.

Our cultural saturation was richly enhanced regularly by Shaikh Nayahan bin Mubarak al Nayahan, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research at that time. He generously invited us two to three times annually to his home as if we were friends and not just colleagues. Usually during Ramadan we participated in the breaking of the fast by eating dates and drinking water alongside  his family and other guests.  On other visits, the women present would sit at in a separate room from the men at the long and imposing dinner table with his Zayed University student daughters, his wife and other female family members eating from platters of fish, lamb and beef as well as bowls of vegetables and plates of luscious desserts and Arabic tea.  At my first dinner I served myself a large portion of a beautiful roasted whole turkey sitting on a platter atop a heaping pile of roasted carrots, root vegetables and rice only to learn that it was roasted young camel, a traditional delicacy.  Despite my surprise I found that I liked the taste.

We attended Shaikh Nayahan’s “majlis” evenings where all of us sat on couches along the three walls of his palace’ reception hall and watched the ages old traditional Arab Bedouin tradition where anyone can  approach the sheikh and seek his guidance, support , advice or just discuss a topic of interest.  We learned that Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the country and the university had also held daily evening open majlis throughout his life.  We observed first hand how the “majlis” evenings were filled with an amazing diversity of guests. One evening we sat in the room along with the queen of Norway, a U.S. movie star, an owner of an international apparel company and some small business owners from Abu Dhabi as well as fellow faculty and staff from Zayed University.  One by one each of them went to pay their respects and talk briefly with Shaikh Nayahan before returning to their seats for tea, chocolate, and figs served by male servants.

These are just a few of the cultural experiences that pulled us into the kaleidoscope of this ancient Arab and Bedouin culture. That daily cultural plunge allowed me and the other student-affairs staff to personalize and focus our work in an individualized student-centered manner. As we deepened in our knowledge of the societal expectations for our students, we were able to adapt Western student affairs approaches into culturally appropriate ones. We learned to treasure this deep involvement in our students’ lives and found them to be ambitious, smart and imbued with the qualities necessary to become the future leaders of the country.

After five years at an Emirati university, I learned that the ability to maintain the values of the country even when those values were in conflict with my own constantly stretched me personally and professionally. I was pulled and kneaded sometimes to the point of breaking in the process of learning to view the world through an Arab, Bedouin, cultural lens.  However, this unfathomable opportunity to immerse myself in a world I never could have imagined forced me to grow in understanding of myself.  I found I was correct when I expected that taking my professional experiences and values and applying them in a country with far different traditional roles and culture would cause dissonance and internal struggle. But what I could never have anticipated or imagined was that the intense, daily, cultural saturation and richness of learning another culture from the inside out would be the highlight of my professional career.

Denise Gifford is now the associate  provost and dean of student services at Widener University- US. The photograph on the Al Fanar home page is of some Zayed University students leaving a carnival.

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