#UAEDressCode: A Tool for Judgement, or Education?

A few years back, when shopping malls turned into major destination for shoppers and tourists in the United Arab Emirates, the issue of how men and women appear in public began to gain greater attention. Mall entrances have come to carry signs and instructions relating not only to pets, trash, bicycles and skaters, but dress codes as well.  In a cosmopolitan society, the idea of modesty does not have a clear definition; it just refers to wearing clothes that do not resemble wearing a swimming suit.  One sign, for example, asks people to wear “respectful clothing,” and specifies that “shoulders and knees should be covered.” But so as not to portray Dubai only as a strict conservative society, it is worth mentioning the fact that in certain areas, such as bars and night clubs, people can wear whatever they want, and there is no one that polices them. On beaches, on the other hand, people who wear full clothes are not allowed to just sit and watch beach goers, because it is obvious that their goal is to watch rather than swim (this refers mainly to men watching women), and this is considered an invasion of people’s privacy.

Among other things, dress code signs encourage modesty in clothing out of respect for Arab-Islamic traditions that define life in the UAE.  But as it turned out later, many mall visitors seem to have either missed on noticing those signs or have ignored them by putting on more revealing clothes that certainly go counter to what was suggested by those signs.

In reaction to what seems like a rising dress code violations in public places, two Emirati ladies, Hanan Al Rayes and Asma Al Muhairi, decided to launch a Twitter campaign to prod people to respect certain norms around clothing.

Sign requesting people to wear "respectful clothing." Image via sandierpastures.com.

The hashtag #UAEDressCode has attracted around 1500 followers, stirring  an argument in the local media about whether foreigners in particular should abide by such rules, or whether such an issue is that of personal freedom, and everyone should be free to do whatever they want in a city that opened its doors to every nationality in the world.  In a way, I see the hashtag #UAEDressCode’s value in seeking to educate the public on local traditions more than in enforcing dress codes and regulations on the part of foreign tourists and resident expatriates. And in order to give sustainability to such efforts, wider-scale intercultural communications that go beyond the promotion of physical touristic features are needed.

Whether agree or disagree with the act of policing people’s clothing, such a campaign seems unique because it is not launched by a governmental authority, but by two private persons, and their tool of communication is not conventional media like broadcasting and the press, but rather Twitter.

One interesting fact that we have to look carefully at is the differentiation between the law and such a personal initiative. Unlike laws issued in countries such as France, which ban certain clothing such as the veil and niqab, the aim of this campaign is to educate people about the local culture in the Emirates, and leave the door open for them to follow such campaign, and adapt to the culture with less revealing clothes. No one gets punished for not following the rules in public places at these malls, but following such rules can be a form of respect expressed towards the country and the culture in specific.

However, this campaign does not seem to be changing people’s actions for the time being, since it was just launched a few weeks ago; as a result, it is hard to judge the outcomes of this campaign now.

While the tweets keep stressing on the point that “the campaign aims for respecting the culture and dressing decently,” it has to some extent used a discourse that feels racist and sexist towards women and foreign women in particular. Using words such as “repulsive” and “uncivilized” brings the question of how women are looked at in this part of the world,  giving the sense that they are judged from the outside, something that the ladies who worked on the campaign need to pay attention to. So rather than focusing on how “immodest” women’s clothes appear, it would more sense to stress on the openness of the Arab-Islamic culture in the UAE, and the tolerant nature of the community here, and how important it is for everyone to understand the values and culture of the other. Instead of using an “offensive” campaign that represents women in “an unpleasant way,” it would be much better to use a discourse that attracts people to the culture rather than creating hatred for it.

It also looks like the campaign does not call for “women’s modesty” only, but also men’s. In a reply to a tweet dated on the 12th June, user @UAEDressCode says: “men are included to apply the dress code. Not apparently topless for example.”

As I followed the dress code drive on Twitter, I could tell that the campaign has provoked both positive and negative reactions. A number of local newspaper columnists encouraged such campaigns. In his column from June 1, Mishaal Al Gergawi writes: “Whatever your views, the campaign message remains valid: expatriates should respect the UAE’s cultural values when in public spaces. This is especially resonant when it comes to public places.”

Al Gergawi adds that:

“Of course, people can’t be held accountable for what they don’t know. My sense is that the main trigger of the campaign is caused by tourists rather than residents. Tourists are rarely given information on cultural sensitivities. There is a role for immigration and airport authorities to play in informing visitors — via brochures — of the appropriate dress code to corresponding spaces. The travel agencies must be required by the tourism authority to explain such sensitivities to tourists prior to arrival.”

Some expatriates and tourists seem to agree with Al Gergawi that lack of education is causing the problem. In an article published on June 1 in the Emirati Gulf News, Caroline D’Souza writes:

“It is the responsibility of the host country to ensure that its guests understand what citizens expect in terms of behavior, says Neil Payne, a practicing British Muslim and Managing Director of Kwintessential Arabia, specializing in cross-cultural communications and cultural awareness trainings in Dubai.””Do not expect people to come looking for this guidance; it needs to be given to them through travel companies, airlines, local employers, at airports and so on. It’s also important that the right tone is used in explaining why such dress code exists,” he says.”

Of course, we don’t expect such social media campaigns to have immediate effects on foreign tourists coming to the UAE.  Many tourists actually choose the UAE as their destination because they were exposed to huge promotional campaigns highlighting the country’s exotic sand dunes, sunny beaches, luxurious hotels, and world-class infrastructures.  But little information seems to be trickling about the UAE cultural values and traditions. The Twitter campaign is just an eye-opener for those tourists who happen to come across such social media conversations about the UAE.

The real challenge is how to turn those few tweets into a huge intercultural and touristic awareness campaign about the country’s culture.  But the main objective here is that such campaigns should try not to push things too far for visitors, and create an environment that is hostile towards its people, but to have a tolerant atmosphere, in which everyone understands other people’s cultures and values, be it Emiratis, or any other nationality. That is why I believe pushing for any law that defines what people should wear in public is not a going to lead to great results, because at the end of the day, the Emirate does not want to turn in to a strict ruled city, as this would affect its commercial and touristic image worldwide. The UAE has made impressive headways in its touristic destination promotions worldwide. It is high time that it was also able to convey its culture and traditions in a widespread and respectful way.

  • Kate

    There’s a similar grassroots campaign here in Qatar right now led by local women. You can read about it here: http://dohanews.co/search/dress+code There have been more and more expats (of all nationalities) showing lots of skin here, both men and women. I’ve noticed a change even over the last year.
    Last week when I was in Abu Dhabi, a supposedly more conservative emirate when compared to Dubai, I was shocked at the bare shoulders and short skirts and shorts at the mall. It just seems so disrespectful to me. I thought that the Qatari campaign was to preempt Qatar going the way of the UAE in regards to disregard for local tradition, but I can see that Emirati women are speaking up, too. I’ve also noticed rules about the kind of attire allowed in sports places and beaches, which obviously exist to prevent babewatch as a spectator sport.

  • Rochelle

    Wow. I can’t believe MMW published such patriarchal nonsense. So a private business not serving to women in hijab in the US is considered Islamophobia but private businesses slut shaming women in the UAE is considered protecting of “culture and traditions”?

    This is really sad and honestly a bit hurtful. I came to MMW because I thought it promoted a healthy conversation that was neither patriarchal nor Islamophobic, that was both feminist and anti-bigotry. This post pretty much signals its demise. Now we are telling women to cover up lest they destroy someone else’s “culture”? No problematization of what UAE “culture” is min the first place. No acknowledgement that the campaign was started by two dudes who are then able to take monopoly over speaking for an entire country. No discussion over the fact that these signs are probably geared towards the trove of migrants from South and Southeast Asia who are treated like shit in the UAE. You even argue that coercion and harassment is okay as long as its done by private citizens! Swell!

    Shame on you, MMW. You’re better than this.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/mmw/ Krista

      @ Rochelle: I meant to reply to this earlier, but I think that the point that you bring up about what UAE “culture” even is in the first place is incredibly important. Although my impression of the signs is that they are geared towards Western tourists (and less towards migrant workers, although we all know that many of the foreign workers are treated horribly), either way, the question of whose culture is seen as authentically Emirati (regardless of time in the country, investments of time and labour into local institutions and infrastructures, among other things) should definitely be problematised.

      My understanding is that it was two women (not men) who started the campaign, but yeah, I don’t have much (any) faith in it either. Personally, I also strongly disagree with the premise of the campaign, and even if I thought that it could be a neutral “educational” campaign, I think that some of the issues that Samya quotes (the horrible judgemental language, the fact that those spearheading the campaign actually DO want to turn it into a law) demonstrate that it’s not heading anywhere good. Actually, I just looked up the hashtag on Twitter, and there’s lots of new sexist language – gross.

      Last, as editor, I just wanted to say that I take your criticism on this post (and share much of it), and I apologise for it being hurtful.

      • Rochelle

        Thank you for the thoughtful and kind response Krista. I think we’re on the same page on a lot of this. And I also apologize that I came off as angry – it just took me aback. Believe it or not a part of me does sympathize with the campaign because I, like everyone else, can get offended by the scantily clad, especially when it is a white woman in a brown country. Its certainly not an easy issue to address.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/mmw/ Krista

          Thanks Rochelle.

  • Zayn Maria

    As someone from California who has lived in the Gulf for almost 10 years, I support the campaigns started by women in both the UAE and Qatar. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t lived in this region has any idea just how offensive some of this attire is. I have never seen women in the U.S. or Europe dressed in the kind of outfits I’ve seen here. It’s almost as if people are trying to be as offensive as possible, and the irony is they do it in places that go out of their way to be as accommodating as possible to Westerners. So, in response to countries like the UAE and Qatar that try to make it as comfortable as possible for Western ex-pats, some of these same ex-pats basically reply with a f— you to local sensibilities.

  • Chris

    I share the concern voiced here to a certain extent, if not quite to the extent the poster has said for herself, to be fair. The discourse this article treats to me is indeed sexist (and has ethnically demeaning subtones as Samya has noticed also) in that only “excesses” of male nudity (toplessness) seems to be noted, but the bodies of women witness constraints placed onto them to a far greater extent. I believe any feminist and human rights discourse on Muslim women’s agency in wearing hijab that wants to be taken seriously necessarily needs to include women’s agency to wear “less” if they choose to. Most societies do not allow people to cross the most fundamental levels of comfort for others. The boundaries are quite narrow for Gulf cultures, though, and the constraint on individual liberty quite undeniably is a lot larger than for most countries that leave a great degree of discretion for humans to dress, in whichever direction. I believe one should not romanticize deeply sexist, patriarchal views on women’s (lack of) agency to dress as they please (less, in this case).

    There is a particular issue for me related to tourism also, less feminist and more fairness grounded:
    “Many tourists actually choose the UAE as their destination because they were exposed to huge promotional campaigns highlighting the country’s exotic sand dunes, sunny beaches, luxurious hotels, and world-class infrastructures. ”

    If you reflect what tourists come for – Gulf culture or unclouded sun – it does not take a rocket scientist to see a minority of tourists come to enjoy Gulf culture. The majority is attracted by ads that promise them a dream of 1001 nights in tax-free shopping, fantastic hotels and beaches. If you look at the ads, you see “exotic” and “distant” Gulf nationals in the background, and beaches with little dressed tourists that could equally find themselves on Italian beaches. I suspect if travel agencies and airlines tell people they will have to cover up in their holiday, a lot of these tourists would have gone to Egypt or Tunisia two years ago. Given political instability, I suspect now they will move to Turkey instead. Which leads me to my fairness point: I suspect Gulf tourism authorities know well why they do not “educate” tourists *before* booking on how to respect local customs. It would reduce tourism to a fraction of what it has become in recent years. I believe locals will have to reach consensus on what they want: $$$ from sun-seeking, summer tourists from the West, or $ from the culturally interested willing to have their liberty restricted in their holiday.

  • Nadia

    This article missed an important point, which is that the women running this campaign are in fact seeking to enforce the dress code rules, not just educate people about them. Asma Al Muhairi in particular, I believe, has been quoted in numerous places as saying that there should be a fine for people dressed in what she sees as inappropriate clothing.

    Frankly I don’t understand why people are offended by seeing someone in clothing they personally would not wear. By that same logic, it’s okay for a French person to be offended at the sight of a woman in niqab or hijab. Live and let live, people.