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How young Emiratis balance traditional and modern values

Balancing traditional values with a modern lifestyle helps preserve national identity

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Emirati students during their study at Zayed University campus in Abu Dhabi yesterday
Gulf News

Dubai: With UAE being home to residents of about 200 nationalities, Emirati youth are under the microscope when it comes to their beliefs about traditional vs modern values.

The ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey, which was conducted in 16 Arab countries, showed that nearly half of Arab youth are keen to embrace modernity.

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The numbers were also reflective of the views in Emirati society.

The 2014 survey showed that 57 per cent of Emirati youth agreed that traditional values are meaningful and ought to be preserved for future generations. Meanwhile 43 per cent said they are keen to embrace modern values and beliefs as traditional values are outdated and belong in the past.

While traditions might be going head to head with the modern ‘westernised’ lifestyle in UAE, the real question remains:  Has there been a shift of values among Emirati youth? 

Gulf News talked to eight young Emirati men and women who expressed their views on the subject.

They agreed that a balance between both traditional and modern values and practices is a good way to preserve their national identity and at the same time  integrate with the multicultural society of the UAE.

'Traditional values keep you on the right track'

Ahmad Ebrahim Al Muhessin: Traditional values play a key role in defining a person’s identity, 21- year old Ahmad Ebrahim Al Muhessin told Gulf News.

A tradition as simple as the Emirati dress code for men, which is the ‘kandoura’, impacts the way Al Muhessin acts.

“While I also wear jeans and other types of clothing, the kandoura remains the national dress my family prefers to see me in. I find that when I am wearing the kandoura I can’t do anything inappropriate.” Al Muhessin feels that wearing his national dress reinforces the value of behaving respectfully. Other traditions such as respecting family members, especially the elderly, have also created a set of rules on how to behave and interact with others in the society.

“In the Emirati culture, there are certain rules such as women shouldn’t be out too late on their own, and values like people have to visit their parents and extended family members often, but all of these values help us stay on the right track.” Al Muhessin explained that such values create a sense of respect between family members and keep people closer to religion.

“One tradition is that every Friday, we wear the kandoura and go for Friday prayers — so that day every week becomes all about the family.”

Pointing out that each culture and society is being affected by globalisation, Al Muhessin said the Emirati culture is no exception. He said that language is one of the more obvious changes taking place among Emirati youth, and said that the older generation will always prefer to hear youth speaking in the Arabic language. “For example, at home we have to speak Arabic when we are spoken to in Arabic and we can reply in English if are addressed in English, but we can’t mix both languages.”

While standing by his traditional values, the soon-to-be university graduate, explained that cultures and certain values must develop and improve. “Traditions should not be tampered with because they have been inherited from our grandparents and great grandparents- but they do need to improve in order to adjust with the world.” Wearing his kandoora at least twice a week, the university student said speaking in English and wearing jeans will never change his true beliefs and Emirati identity.

'Direct link between religion and tradition'

Looking at the topic of traditional versus modern values from another standpoint, Emirati sophomore student Deema Al Shamsi, who is studying international relations, said she believes religion and tradition go hand in hand.

“Religion plays a major role in Emirati traditions, because most practices of culture are based on religious values.” Deema said that if people are drifting away from Emirati traditions such as dress code and family structure, then they are moving away from some religious teachings.

She listed values such as respecting the elderly, visiting and spending time with family, and preserving the language and dress code of the culture as some of the core principles in which she was raised.

“I think the Arabic language is well preserved among Emiratis, but more and more people are losing the dress code which is the abaya and sheela (scarf) for women.”

She pointed out that a growing number of Emirati women are seen without the abaya and scarf, and are dressing in a more western style of fashion in public. The dress code plays an important role in defining not only an Emirati woman but also a Muslim woman, explained Deema.

“Before, interacting or mixing with men wasn’t allowed in our culture, but now it is if you’re dressed modestly — in your abaya and scarf.” 

Aware that western aspects such as music and TV shows are very popular among Emirati youth, Deema believes a person can adopt modern values and yet remain an Arab at heart.

“The style and type of music one chooses to listen to is a personal choice and does not necessarily affect a person’s values or what they believe in.”  

Overall, Deema believes that while there has been a western influence on Emirati youth, the young men and women in the UAE have managed to maintain a balance between their cultural identity and the values of a world that is experiencing globalisation.

'Cultures develop, but values remain'

There is no doubt that the forces of globalisation are making their way into every society, Omar Al Mutawa, a university student, said.

Pointing out that the majority of residents in the UAE are non-Emirati, Omar said it’s easy for Emiratis to adopt certain western values.

Just like many others, Omar believes the dress code is something that is quickly being affected.

“Yes I wear the kandoura sometimes, but I also wear track suits and jeans and that’s not where the problem lies. The real issue is the concept of modesty for both males and females, and that is definitely a value in our culture,” he said.

The need for Emiratis to dress in a respectable manner is what’s really important. With the world developing at a fast pace, cultures are also changing, he said.

“Because our culture is also evolving, we can’t be following the exact same traditions that were once followed by our grandparents years and years ago. Instead we should keep the traditions and values that mean the most to us and are most practical and let go of some others.”

Listing male and female interaction as one aspect that has developed among Emiratis, Omar believes that language is a factor that should be preserved across time.

“I feel that the Arabic language is something we need to preserve. Of course, English is important because it’s a lingua franca and we need it to communicate with people from other cultures in university and work, but the Arabic language is getting affected and I don’t want to see it die.”

The 18-year-old supports the culture’s development, pointing out that a balance between modern life and traditions is the key to keeping one’s identity.

“You can see that balance in the buildings that are standing in this country. They are really modern, but they have an element of Arab heritage in their designs.”

The 18 year old supports the culture’s development, pointing out that a balance between modern life and traditions is key to keeping ones identity. “You can see that balance in the buildings that are standing in this country- they are really modern, but they have an element of Arab heritage in their designs.”

'Culture and traditions must be preserved'

A balance between cultures starts at home for second-year university student Nadia Al Fahami.

Born to an Emirati father and Mexican mother, Nadia said she was raised to respect both cultures and has stayed true to her religion and identity.

“Our household combines both cultures, while we leaned a little more to the Emirati side. I grew up believing that despite how much modernisation is taking place, it’s important to preserve our culture and religious values.”

In the midst of the infusion of cultures taking place in the UAE society, Nadia is a perfect example of a blend of tradition and the modern. 

Celebrating Emirati and religious occasions such as Eid and Ramadan, Nadia said her family also celebrates Christmas and Thanksgiving.

She said that traditional values help keep her on the right track because they place limitations and restrictions on her way of living.

“I think the right track is following the basics of religion and not doing anything or going anywhere that could go against those values.”

Describing her family as Emirati-oriented, Nadia said that things like wearing the abaya were always optional, but other traditions like family gatherings on Friday are indispensable.

“Friday family day is a must every week — it brings the whole family and extended family together.”

She said that the modern values that she lives by include being independent, and being able to drive on her own without a chaperone. 

“The important thing is to maintain our culture and adapt it to modernisation but not change it,” she explained.

Believing that traditions should not be tampered with, Nadia referred to Dubai’s prominent culture as the factor that makes the city beautiful. “When you’re in the US, you don’t feel like there is a specific culture. But you come to a place like Dubai and you can feel it right away.”

'Adapting is key to an interconnected world'

Khalifa Al Qamzi, another Emirati, 24, said Emirati traditional values like giving back, respecting others, treating people equally, being family oriented and maintaining one’s identity, are values that stem out of Islam.

“I believe that all the values I have mentioned are relevant as I implement them as much as I could because I believe in them and because these values are related to the teachings of Islam.

Qamzi said being brought up to respect people especially the elderly and being grounded by family has shaped his personality with qualities he is proud off.

Al Qazmi believes that by giving back through charity and treating everyone with respect and dignity regardless of their race or religion are good values that keep him grounded and benefit him on a day to day basis. “Be nice and merciful to others and god will be merciful to you.”

Although he said he is deeply connected with his culture, Al Qazmi admits that modern values have been positively integrated with his traditions.

“In the past there was a lot of segregation. Women and men couldn’t really deal with each other but I believe that things are changing they are working with each other and they interact with one another in the mall. It is not about over socializing it is about being normal,” he said.

Al Qazmi also said women now practice more freedom than before, they can work, study and go out with friends, and they are no longer restricted by traditions.

“This is because the world has become interconnected. Now the whole world comes to Dubai, the locals are mixing with people from different nationalities and backgrounds; we have to find a way to make it work.”

Al Qazmi believes that to live successfully in today’s world traditional and modern values should be incorporated. “Modern values should be adapted given that we don’t forget our traditions and cultures. You must first think if these modern values go against the way you were brought up or not. If it does not then it can have a positive outcome on your way of living.”

'Different cultures must exist in harmony'

AAhmad Bin Al Shaikh, 24, believes that hospitality, reputation, family, maintaining close relationships with the Emirati community and having mothers or sisters choose a wife are among the traditions and values his family encourages.

“My parents always insist that I maintain good relationships with Emirati families in my community by attending social gatherings with my father. Another tradition is having the mother or older sister choose an Emirati bride.”

He said there are a few pure (originally from the UAE, not mixed with other countries) Emirati families left in the UAE, so his family is keen on choosing a pure Emirati so that they don’t become extinct.

Hospitality is another Emirati value that Al Shaikh said is shared among all his people. He said even if the visitor is a really close friend who has come over hundreds of times.

“My father insists that a huge table of food and refreshments are available to him.”

Putting family first and maintaining his father’s reputation by leading by his example when in public is also an important value.

Although Shaikh believes traditional cultures and values are important he thinks that some of them, like having the mother choose the bride are becoming redundant.   “I think most of them like hospitality, family and reputation are relevant, while others like having the mother choose the bride and hanging out with Emiratis over expatriates are not, and so these values should be adjusted to meet this globalised world’s needs.”

Al Shaikh said he believes that these values are strongly rooted in him. However he believes that other modern values have entered the scene and exist in harmony with traditional values. “Accepting other cultural beliefs and dress as well as being open to non-segregated environments are among the modern values that Emiratis are becoming increasingly okay with.”

Al Shaikh believes youth are drawn to some modern values because they are more updated in this changing world.

“I think traditional values should be adapted to include modern ones because they both have their positives. I am all for change.”

'Busy work schedule poses a challenge'

Saeed Al Hajari, 24, said it is more difficult to keep up with some of the traditional values he was raised with as he got older and busier.

“Respecting others, being kind and patient to people, being family-oriented by visiting frequently, not differentiating because of class or nationality and preserving my identity are among the values I was raised with,” Al Hajari said.

Al Hajari said sometimes implementing these values can be challenging. Preserving his identity by speaking Arabic, for example, has become increasingly difficult as English is the language he has used since he was in university and at his workplace where he mostly deals with expatriates.

He said making time for family can be difficult because of his busy work schedule.

“When I started getting older and busier, it became more difficult to see my family as much as I would like to, but I still try my best to do so because I strongly believe in these values. I was raised with them so I don’t even notice when I am implementing them. They have become a part of my day-to-day life.”

Al Hajari believes that Emirati traditional values will not disappear. “I believe that traditions only stop if people are following something harmful. But these values are all good values that encourage care for one another,” he said.

Al Hajari said that to be successful in the UAE work enviroment one should be proficient in the Arabic language and preserve the national identity. Besides, language is something his values encourage.

Despite his strong belief in his traditional values, Al Hajari said modern values should also be adopted.

“Working closely with people from completely different cultures is part of a modern way of thinking that is emerging.  Also men not imposing strict ways of thinking on the women in their family are another modern value.”

Al Hajari said Emirati youth nowadays are more attracted to modern values because people like the idea of it, it paints a nice picture, where words like acceptance and unity are used.

'Women should always carry themselves with dignity'

Asma Ahmad, an 18-year-old Emirati, said women are usually the subject of restrictions imposed by cultural and traditional values.

Dressing modestly, reputation, being family-oriented, obedience and respect are among the values strongly instilled by her parents.

“Reputation is the number one value that I feel the strongest about, an Emirati girl should always make sure to carry herself in dignity and respect because her actions affect the family’s reputation more than male members.”

Asma said women face more restrictions from traditional and religious values than men because they represent the honour and reputation of the family.

Though she said she can be frustrated by some of the restrictions such as not being able to stay out late and mingle with male friends outside the class context, Asma said she strongly believes in and practices these traditional values.

“These values stem from Islam, I believe that they help us remain in the right track, most of the time I see them as red lines that remind us of how we are supposed to behave as opposed to restrictions.”

Modern values have emerged, said Asma, who believes that with time traditional values, which usually restrict women in specific situations are becoming more flexible.

“Today it is more acceptable for an Emirati to go to a non-segregated university, study abroad, go out to the mall and even work in the private sector for long hours than before. So long as you are doing something to benefit yourself and your country, families and the Emirati community would support you.”

Asma believes that without imposing modern values it is impossible for the country to grow and develop in this changing world.

 

ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey results

Among all 16 countries polled:

• Traditional values mean a lot to me and ought to be preserved for generations to come. 83 per cent in 2011, 65 per cent in 2012, 60 per cent in 2013 and 54 per cent in 2014

• Traditional values are outdated and belong in the past. I am keen to embrace modern values and beliefs. 17 per cent in 2011, 35 per cent in 2012, 40 per cent in 2013, 46 per cent in 2014

UAE nationals in 2014:

• Traditional values mean a lot to me and ought to be preserved for generations to come. 57 per cent

• Traditional values are outdated and belong in the past. I am keen to embrace modern values and beliefs. 43 per cent

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