When in Rome, do as the Romans do. That is the message of two campaigns started by local women in the Gulf countries of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Najla Al Mahmoud is a Qatari behind the "One of Us" public awareness push, which hopes to educate expatriates about appropriate dress. Specifically, she wants people - men and women - in her country to cover up between the shoulders and the knees. During the summer "the scene of exposed flesh increases", Al Mahmoud said. "We are offended by this... but we are sure that people don't know and we are sure that people will respect this. Why wouldn't they? We want to educate them."
Most local women in Qatar and the UAE wear an abaya, a black garment that covers most of the body. The men wear the kandura, which tends to be ankle-length and a shade of white.
The "UAE Dress Code" campaign, started by locals Hanan Al Rayes and Asma Al Muhairi, began out of disgust at the sight of foreigners dressed in what they deemed to be inappropriate attire, according to media reports. "Whether you like it or not, this country has its own culture that shd be respected & protected by its own people," read one of their recent tweets.
Call for dress code
Hamad Al Rahoumi, a member of the UAE Federal National Council (FNC), does not think public awareness alone is enough because there are people who are aware of cultural norms, but choose to ignore them. Al Rahoumi has suggested legally enforcing a dress code, but the law would act more as a deterrent than to punish people. "Just because the law is there a lot of people will stop (dressing immodestly)... it is like a policeman standing next to a stop light everyone will (drive) properly... He doesn't have to give anyone a ticket." He added that the seven emirates have different rules regarding attire, and a federal law is needed to make a dress code in the UAE consistent.
| Most local women in Qatar and the UAE wear an abaya, a black garment that covers most of the body, while men wear the kandura [Getty Images]
Another member of the advisory FNC body, Noura Al Kaabi, said via email that "proper awareness campaigns would be more ideal".
While the awareness campaigns are not focussed on creating dress code laws, they are about respecting cultural norms. But modesty and taste are subjective and without clear laws, what is acceptable attire is often left to the discretion of the wearer.
Article 30 of the UAE Constitution says, "Freedom of opinion and expressing it verbally, in writing or by other means of expression shall be guaranteed within the limits of the law." But to what extent does "other means" cover clothing - or lack of it?
There are also no laws that explicitly spell out the do's and don'ts of dressing in Qatar. Article No. 398 of the Qatari Criminal Act states that one can be fined 300 Qatari riyals (about $82) for acts of public indecency equivalent to urinating or bathing in public.
The only constitutional article that addresses the issue is Article 57, which states: "The respect of the Constitution, compliance with the laws issued by Public Authority, abiding by public order and morality, observing national traditions and established customs is a duty of all who reside in the State of Qatar or enter its territory."
Laws are not needed, and the constitutional article is enough for everyone, said Hassan Al Sayed, a prominent Qatari legal expert. "Just respect the culture in Qatar."
Khalid Al Ameri, an Emirati columnist and blogger, agrees. Enforcing laws pertaining to clothes could prove difficult and arbitrary. For example, a woman may choose to wear shorts and a baggy T-shirt and find herself in violation of a hypothetical law, whereas another "girl might come wearing tight stuff that reveals more than it covers, but complies with the dress code", said Al Ameri, who wrote recently on the topic. Enforcement and punishment would also depend on the actual officer or official to pass judgement, which is not desired, he added.
Public indecency laws, of course, are not unique to the Arab world. Western countries also have rules for covering up, and there are different rules for the sexes. Women in western countries cannot walk around topless, one expatriate commented.
It is not so much a matter of what clothes one wears, but where one wears them, said Al Ameri. "You couldn't wear a short shirt in a mall, but you could maybe wear a short shirt in a private club or private restaurant where it complies with the dress code."
On social media and Qatari networking sites, some foreign women who have both applauded and denounced the modesty movement said they think time would be better spent campaigning to enforce laws that could save lives, for example fining people who smoke in areas where lighting up is banned, or requiring the use of seat belts.
Others have suggested that stores in the Gulf could sell more "local-friendly" dresses, skirts and the like. The high-end clothing stores on the Pearl in Doha, Qatar, do not generally stock many clothes that would be considered acceptable women's wear in public spaces in the country. Trying to find a shop that sells a dress that has both sleeves and a hem that hits below the knees proved difficult. The same could be said for many of the clothes for sale at the H&M in the local Qatari malls. "This is so bad," said Al Mahmoud, who is also trying to raise awareness at clothing stores by asking that their advertisements and window displays be culturally appropriate.
Shopping in one of the world's largest complexes, the Dubai Mall, presents the same irony - see-through blouses, plunging necklines, and near waist-high skirt slits are prevalent. Pants and blouses, of course, are an option.
"We want Qatar to be a place for everyone. Something in the middle. Not too extreme and not too loose."
- Najla Al Mahmoud
There have been calls of hypocrisy, noting that many Muslims vehemently opposed the veil bans in France and Belgium. Comments on Qatar Living, an online community website, run the gamut, with some stating that people should be allowed to wear what they want in public be it in Qatar or Belgium. But others believe that if people do not like the local laws or norms in the Gulf or Europe, then "they should go back to where they came from... In their country, it's their rules."
Qatari Al Mahmoud said one could not compare Gulf campaigns to legal moves in Europe. "We are not interfering with religion... We are not banning a certain attire," she said. "Modesty doesn't have a religion or a country... We are not singling people out or being racists to one nationality or one religion. It's for everyone."
The Gulf should not go the route of some European countries that penalise some people for their clothing choices, said Emirati Al Ameri. The Emirates has grown "as a country and we have become one of the most popular places for expats to go because we have been a tolerant society and because we have taken an approach of educating rather than punishing people that come". A simple dress code is better. "When you have a dress code and somebody doesn't abide by it, they are excluded." The choice becomes theirs. If someone goes to a restaurant and does not wear the appropriate attire, they will be refused entry. "I believe that is a more effective way than by punishing."
Nora, a Muslim expat from the United Kingdom who teaches in Qatar, said "our 'uniform' tells men 'approach with caution'". And, while one cannot control the actions of disrespectful men, "one can control how we dress, so we do", added Nora, who did not want her last name used. That is not to say that a woman dressed immodestly is extending an invitation. "Everyone deserves to be treated with respect."
All those contacted for this article agreed that disrespecting someone who is dressed disrespectfully is not acceptable. "We want Qatar to be a place for everyone. Something in the middle. Not too extreme and not too loose," Al Mahmoud said. UAE FNC member Al Rahoumi agreed. "We don't want them to cover their face... (but), I don't want to see the underwear... It is not suitable."
Whether you like the campaigns or not, outfits that might fly elsewhere will likely not pass in the Gulf anytime soon, despite the number of foreign residents who live in these countries. A Qatari resident from the United States also does not think that any pushback from offended Western women would change local norms, and that foreigners should just adhere to the culture. "What's the big deal? Cover the knees, shoulders and (chest)," said Cena McLatchy. "It's not like they are asking you to go to prayer five times a day, or slaughter a lamb at Eid."