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Photo of David Burns (above top, with student) by Michael Kennedy
A Sensitive Mission
Teaching at an all-female university in Dubai poses serious challenges
By David Burns
Member, SPJ International Journalism Committee
“As a male professor, you should never be alone in the room with a student. The consequence to the student could be dire,” the interviewer said via the satellite videoconference connection that spanned the thousands of miles separating Washington, D.C., from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. I had taught in the Middle East in the late 1990s, so I already knew the geographical distance between a classroom in America and a Middle Eastern classroom was nothing compared to the cultural differences I would soon encounter there as a journalism professor at an all-female Arab university.
I have learned to knock on my classroom door before entering to give the students time to apply their headscarves. Islam requires Muslims to pray five times a day, and I have entered a classroom and done an immediate about-face to give privacy to a student praying there.
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Students are equally accommodating. In the U.S., I was careful not to be alone with any student, but here it is forbidden for a student to be alone with an unrelated male. Some families would consider this shameful, and students seem to fear those dire consequences mentioned by my interviewer. When students visit during office hours, they arrive on the arm of a female friend, who serves as chaperone.
Unlike in the U.S., it’s fine to call the students “girls.” Some professors opt for “ladies.” I prefer “students.” But “women” is unacceptable. In this culture, to call a female a woman is to make a negative assumption about her chastity. So, even though some of these students are married and pregnant, they are still referred to as girls.
In class one day, I told two of my students, who come from very traditional families, that they had a real talent for television. I asked them to consider appearing on-camera as news anchors (called “presenters” in this part of the world). They both shook their heads, and one said, drawing her index finger across her throat, “Our families would kill us!”
Last spring, an Associated Press article reported the death of a music-video presenter in post-Taliban Afghanistan who had shed the traditional Muslim burqa for Western-style clothes. Kabul police say they suspect family members may have been involved in her death. While the UAE and Afghanistan are worlds apart, fear of dishonoring the family is a real part of these young women’s lives. I have not seen a factual assessment of the scope of “honor” crimes in Dubai because there’s very little reporting on the subject. But I have seen anecdotal evidence that tells me such acts take place in this society as well. I heard one student telling another about a brothersister confrontation that ended with her brother threatening, “If you do that again, you’ll be dead, and I’ll be in jail!” The other student shook her head knowingly.
Widespread affluence and an educational system that historically favored the theoretical over the practical have resulted in too few UAE nationals trained for — and entering — the workforce, a situation that worries the government. New institutions of higher learning are focusing on applied education over abstract learning, and the patriarchal society is slowly accepting the notion of women in the workforce. Indeed, our graduates are taking jobs, but not in large enough numbers and not necessarily in journalism.
Journalism in the UAE is based on accommodation — the press complains that it serves at the pleasure of the government and a few influential families.As a journalism teacher, I often think the world is upside down here; public relations is considered a more credible calling than journalism. Female students interested in journalism are often discouraged from entering the field by their families, who cite long hours, dangerous work situations and unsupervised exposure to men who are not their relatives. Consequently, pressrooms here are filled with expatriate reporters.
If news is the first draft of history and foreigners largely write it, then this country has waived its right to frame its own story. I pointed this out one day in class. One student’s response shed light on the local mind-set. She didn’t see a problem because, in her view, foreign reporters will simply write what their UAE bosses want or face deportation.
The sheer fact that my colleagues and I are here teaching UAE females such subjects as mass communication, business, technology and the arts is an enormous step forward in such a conservative society. But many of these students will never work; their families will steer them towards marriage and motherhood.
I see parallels to 1950s America, when women were often expected to go to college but leave with a “Mrs.” degree. For those American women, their university experience not only affected their lives but also changed the way they raised their daughters.
Regardless of what they do, my students may one day have daughters of their own and, recalling fond memories of their university days, encourage them to go to college and pursue careers. Maybe the next generation of young women will be allowed to trade some social “respect” for a lot more freedom.
David Burns has taught journalism in Poland, Jordan, Afghanistan, the United States and the United Arab Emirates. This article originally appeared in the August/September 2006 issue of American Journalism Review. Reprinted with permission.