How money eroded the popularity of traditional dress

Why some Emirati women are turning away from traditional dress - and how to reverse the trend.

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What women wear has long been a subject of argument in the UAE, not only for young people but also among intellectuals and decision-makers.

Older people's views are often tinged with nostalgia for a time when "women were women, not trying to be men". Today many Emirati and other Arab women here prefer to wear western-styles blouses and long skirts, at least sometimes, instead of traditional attire.

This trend has generated indignation in many Emirati intellectuals, who believe that it may result in the fading away of the national identity.

The trend toward western clothes has been fed by several factors over time. Money is a main one.

Since the rapid expansion of the oil industry, many Emiratis have come to live luxuriously. Women buy modern, branded clothes, using their wealth and spending power to reinforce their status and ego.

Women became free to wear what pleases them as long as they also wear their black abayas. In fact, some Emirati families allow their daughters to leave the house wearing western clothes without abayas. What was once considered "aib" (a blemish) has now become fashion.

As they accepted styles that global brands introduced, many women have come to see non-traditional clothes as a price they must pay to be modern, fashionable and "free".

The media have also played a role. Teenagers especially tend to pursue the style of role models, often singers or actresses from other cultures. This means shiny blouses, sleeveless clothes, even short skirts are becoming the norm. Hairstyles, vocabulary, and ways of thinking are subject to the same influences.

On the UAE Women's Network, the country's biggest online gathering place for women, one post had the title: "For those who like to dress like the stars." In less than an hour, almost 300 people had viewed it.

One poster observed that when a few teens adopt a certain celebrity role model, others tend to follow.

Another said there's nothing wrong with pursuing "beautiful things" and that following fashion is a good way to change sometimes.

In the UAE, she added tellingly, it is "aib" for a girl to wear trousers or jeans, but "you know, what is forbidden is always wanted".

Posts like these reveal a natural desire to leave behind traditional ways. One female Zayed University student claims that Emirati women have an inferiority complex, and have noticed that western clothing catches men's attention. She mentioned actress Shaima Sabt, who has confessed that many GCC female media artists follow that career mostly to "find a husband", saying "we have money, so we don't need it, why else do you think a woman here becomes an artist?"

The UAE's mixed culture is another factor, since it brings a feeling of alienation in our own country. Women who cannot reconcile their own cultural values with an ability to shape their own identity can be left feeling weak and insecure.

In a survey of 20 Zayed University students, 11 said they prefer traditional clothes, seven of the 11 saying this attire "is my identity". But when the same survey was distributed to 20 students from Al Dana, a middle school, 14 said they like "modern" clothes; nine of the 14 calling them more comfortable. (Personally I find traditional clothes more comfortable, but teens do not.)

As I noted above, many Emirati intellectuals believe the move toward western clothes may diminish our cultural values. To resist this and other such trends, the Government provides a number of measures to validate and affirm Emirati culture. One of these is the Al Samalia summer programme, in which children live in a traditional environment -wearing traditional clothes.

One suggestion to rebuild the popularity of traditional dress is to teach children about it in the school curriculum.

Another involves promoting traditional attire in the global market, as has been done with some success for the Japanese kimono and Punjabi styles.

We could also support fashion contests for the best traditional dress design; and make it more acceptable to children by, for example, adding more embroidery or using shiny modern fabrics.

The media are important, too. When Arabic dramas and TV shows flourish, people will look to the actresses, in their traditional dress, to get ideas for their own clothing.

Ayesha Ali Al Blooshi, a Zayed University graduate, considers her abaya and sheela to be part of her identity