"We’re Normal. We’re Just Like You": Gendered Practices of Cultural Exchange and Translation in Dubai
“We’re Normal. We’re Just Like You”: Gendered Practices of Cultural Exchange and Translation in Dubai


cultural exchange


Set in the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU) in downtown Dubai, United Arab Emirates, this article explores SMCCU Emirati volunteers’ assumptions about how their mainly Western visitors judge Emirati culture, as well as the ways those volunteers attempt to meet and challenge visitors’ expectations. Because of volunteers’ assumptions about their Western visitors, they present a liberal model of agency, and use the language of second-wave feminism, such as “choice,” “equality” and “empowerment,” to convince visitors that Emirati women are not oppressed within the UAE, but are instead thriving, with free and equal treatment to men. Volunteers typically provide presentations that include declarations of Emirati women’s modern, liberal agency, as well as demonstrations of distinctive Emirati cultural tradition. At times, volunteers move beyond the expected language of feminism within their cultural presentations to reveal a less one-dimensional representation of Emirati culture. Participant observation within this center and interviews with volunteers provides evidence for the ways in which the discourse of liberal agency shapes volunteers’ responses to guests who expect such answers. Using Saba Mahmood’s (2005) critique of the dominance of liberal discourse, this research shows volunteers’ awareness of this powerful discourse when discussing women’s choice and empowerment to Western audiences. Mainly, volunteers go along with the expected “script” of the Center, rather than attempting to convey different aspects of the lived experience of Emirati culture. However, at times volunteers do deviate from and go beyond that “script” to exhibit Emirati culture as wholly different and even superior to Western culture.

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