Tuesday, June 26, 2012


This story has been kicking around for well over a month now but I have been busy procrastinating over writing that actually pays money to post.

It all started with two young Emirati women who got fed up with seeing ex-pats wearing short, tight or revealing clothes out and about so they started a campaign which was soon trending on the dreaded Twitter with the hashtag #UAEDressCode and not long after that, a Twitter account with the name @UAEDressCode was set up with numerous calls for the dress code to be enforced by law.

For the record, I have always made sure I observe the dress code, namely that when you go to a public place where there are likely to be locals, the majority of whom dress modestly in thobes, abayas and/or sheilas, or anyone else liable to be offended, you should cover your knees and shoulders. This means there are some items of clothing that I used to wear during warm weather in the UK or on holiday that I simply can't wear in certain places but considering the air con is usually on deep freeze, I got over that pretty quickly. I should probably add that shopping malls are a big part of my life here, not because I've turned into a shopaholic but because they tend to be the equivalent of the High Street - home to cinemas, a lot of restaurants, pharmacies, doctors' surgeries and so on.

The advice on the dress code is in every guidebook on the UAE and there are signs at the entrances to shopping malls so why some tourists and ex-pats have difficulty observing it is anybody's guess. But, you can walk around the malls here and you won't get very far before you see someone in short shorts or a strapless top or something so low cut that they're in danger of knocking you or themselves out with a vital part of their anatomy. I would guess the reason they do this is because they get away with it. They do it once, no one says anything, so they ask themselves why they need bother observe it the dress code and stop wearing stuff they wear happily in their home countries.

Does that bother me? This answer has changed over the time I have been here. At first it was not really, apart from a creeping irksome feeling that if I have made the effort to cover up, why can't they? Increasingly, it bothers me more as it is the cause of pressure for a dress code to be enforced by law and by the fact that I am realising that there is a tendency among some locals to tar all of us ex-pats with the same brush, ie, assume all of us are culturally insensitive enough to ignore the fact that our skimpy clothes may be considered shocking or offensive by locals and need to be kept in line by a law.

Everybody who comes here to live knows this is an Islamic society but it is an Islamic society that needs the benefits of non-Muslims coming here to help the country develop so, there are exceptions, you can drink alcohol although it is heavily taxed and you are not allowed to drink it outside licensed premises unless you have an alcohol licence, and, you can be arrested for drinking in a public place. There are restrictions on buying pork but it is still available.

This dress code business is a perfect example of the occasional friction between the two cultures that is difficult to resolve. Locals see us walking around "scantily clad" and it irks them because they believe it goes against their religion and/or culture and is a poor influence on their children. Because they're used to associating with people who are covered, they may also feel shocked and embarrassed themselves. The phenomenal level of boozing that goes on in the UAE is easier to ignore because it is largely confined to the hotels and nightclubs where locals can choose not to go. The debate around the dress code has revealed some uncomfortable facts about the attitudes of some hardliners towards ex-pats and tourists and truth be told, it is the first time in my 17 months here that I have ever really felt unwelcome here. The campaign may have started innocuously as two young women wanting to know why there is supposed to be a dress code but people seem to ignore it and has mushroomed into claims that people who do not adhere into are 'immoral' 'indecent' and 'destroying our culture'.

Take this article in The National, an interview with one of the campaign's initiators, it states clearly that it is not about changing the law, and the headline is about 'tourist dress code', ie those who are short-term visitors to the UAE who could perhaps be accused of not taking the dress code seriously enough because they are relaxing and on holiday and are not used to the oppressive heat. Yet, what do we hear, just two weeks later? Certain factions want a change in the law to force people to adhere to the code. And, it confirms that for some, it's a tit-for-tat gesture, a sideways swipe at some European states for banning the veil. While I would never choose to wear a veil myself, in my view it was a mistake to ban it for this very reason.

Within a matter of weeks, a campaign by two young women for tourists to wise up and cover up when they're out and about has morphed into a call for a change in the law which could mean criminalising people who fail to cover their knees and shoulders when they go shopping. I object to this for a number of reasons.

1.  Believe me, I have no desire to go shopping in a boob tube and hotpants, because at the ripe old age of 32, soon to be 33, even in the UK there would be sundry cries of 'put it away love, you're putting me off my chicken fillet selection' should I attempt that, but what I do object to is the idea of being branded a criminal if I happen to forget to make sure my skirt covers my knees or someone decides what I am wearing is too transparent. Case in point, The National's advice columnist explaining to a correspondent that wearing black is a good idea because it's not transparent.

2.  I am fundamentally opposed to the concept that my shoulders or knees are in any way shocking or disrespectful to those who look upon them. I do not mind compromising by covering them in certain situations but making me do so by law suggests that my knees and shoulders are in some way a moral hazard to the population at large.

3. These things always end up being about women and telling them what to do. Case in point, that column again which says the knees and shoulders rule is a 'guideline for ladies'. A tweet also appeared suggesting "fashion" choices for women not just covering their knees and shoulders but all the way to the wrists and ankles.

 lovely flowy summer maxi dress with light strechy longsleeved top under, looks pretty & better protection from Sun too ^__*

I will be the judge of what 'looks pretty' on me, thank you very much, and that is not it. I would look like a Playschool presenter from the mid 1970s if I dressed like that.

4.  Then there's the creeping xenophobia, an example being in reference to the non-local presenters on Dubai One who aren't sufficiently covered according to some. Another Tweet:

 you are right and this is big mistake to make non local to run any madia channel. Result will be unacceptable

5. The obvious desire by some to prevent any debate or questioning, just tell everyone to shut up and obey. More from Twitter:

Our rules, codes, traditions, culture are not to be discussed its to be highlighted, taught and obeyed .. Thanks

6. Then of course there's that old chestnut, those who are scantily clad are 'asking' for it or will come to harm because of it: Again from Twitter:

Wearing properly & looking modest can be fashionable as well. Nothing will harm you if u dressed like that

As for the claims that failing to cover 'destroys our culture' and that no one has the right to do that, I agree that no one has the right to do that, but who does this sound like? Who excuses their prejudice by saying another culture is destroying their's? It's the mirror image of right-wing extremists in Europe who claim that the continent is being "Islamified". Not the tolerant image that the UAE would like to present to the world at all.

I perhaps would not mind about the potential new law if it weren't for the fact that the selling of none dress code clothes is big business here in Dubai and the wider UAE. I went on a clothes shopping trip and I found it pretty much impossible to find a dress that covers my knees and my shoulders in any of the myriad western High Street shops in The Dubai Mall.

As I wondered around, I became increasingly irritated by the fact that if something was long enough to cover my knees, it invariably didn't cover my shoulders, or was too see-through and here I was potentially handing over my hard-earned cash for something that could be deemed illegal if this law does come in.

It didn't help that I then came across this sign in a one shop in which I could not find a single item which adhered with the code:

Buy buy buy, in other words, the exhortation of Dubai consumerism and a neat example of the dichotomy that exists here. It is fine to take money for "indecent" (the term used by some) clothes but do not, whatever you do, wear them and offend people in the very same shopping mall where you bought them. 

The reality is that much as the UAE may be becoming uncomfortable with so-called westernised culture of people dressing how they please without concern for others, tourism is a huge part of the economy, and the country relies on ex-pats coming here and being able to a large extent to continue their western existence undeterred. The first ex-pat or tourist fined or imprisoned for flouting any new law will make headline news around the world and will be doubtless deter many from thinking that the UAE is somewhere they really want to visit or live.

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