Anna Durrani could not believe her eyes when she saw a woman wearing a see-through mesh dress at the school gate one day. At another time, but in the same place, she saw a woman sporting a crop top and very short shorts.
The mother-of-two and Dubai resident was taken aback seeing the ensembles on school premises, both in contrast to the usual attire of either business dress (by parents heading to work after) or sleek athleisure (by parents going to the gym) she was used to seeing.
Dressing the part
Subscribe to it or not, the dress-code-during-the-school-run debate has been raging for years. In 2013, a thread with more than 100 posts on the online Expat Woman forum discussed whether UAE schools should regulate how parents dress.
In 2015, the now-defunct newspaper 7 Days published a sign posted outside Raffles World Academy, asking parents to “dress modestly” by keeping their knees, shoulders and midriffs covered.
Farther afield, in the US, a Houston high school introduced a dress code for parents in 2019, which disallowed pyjamas, exposed underwear and skin-tight leggings.
As the UAE continues to evolve, attracting more expats and ushering in new and even welcome policies of tolerance, it is undeniable that dress codes are no longer as strict as they once were in some public locations.
This makes some parents, like Durrani, uncomfortable in certain situations, as she believes overly revealing attire is inappropriate to wear on school grounds. She points out that since teachers follow a dress code and students conform to uniform guidelines, others visiting the property should also dress “respectfully”.
“It’s not a beach club or party – it’s just a school,” she says. “For me, it’s not appropriate if the midriff or too much cleavage are showing. It’s easy enough to wear a cover-up such as a jacket or button-down shirt if you’re coming from the gym and wearing a sports bra.”
While mother-of-three Gemma White agrees that wearing revealing clothes at school is not the most appropriate decision, her rationale is somewhat different. “For me it's less about protecting the children and what they see, and more about respecting the culture here. Personally, I don't try and avert my sons' eyes from the way people dress, I think we need to move past the idea of policing other people's bodies and clothes. However, there are cultural elements and expectations at play, and parents need to be mindful of that.
“While I have no problem with what parents wear on the school run, I do feel that national norms and preferences take precedence,” says White.
Culture and dress codes
“When you go to a government building in the UAE, there’s certain type of clothing you wouldn’t wear so, equally, you shouldn’t to a school, either,” says Dubai schoolteacher Sara (name changed upon request) and mother of two. “For me, it’s just common sense.
“Working in Dubai schools as teachers, we are told our shoulders have to be covered and dresses have to be below the knee,” she says, adding there have been instances in her nine-year career when her colleagues have been asked to go home and change.
However, she adds, while it might be written somewhere in the handbook, she has never come across any sort of modest clothing rule expressed to parents.
She also believes parents in the UAE tend to put more effort into their appearances at school compared to those back in the UK. “In the UK, it’s perfectly normal for parents to turn up in their pyjamas. You will see some women turn up in fleece nightgowns. They don’t bother getting all dressed up if they’re stay-at-home mums,” she explains.
Mother-of-three Camilla Hassan, who has lived in Dubai for 15 years and works from home, often opts to stay in her pyjamas during drop-off time. “We leave the house at 7.15am, so the thought of showering, dressing and a full face of make-up leaves me cold,” she says.
The school Hassan’s children go to has a drive-through drop-off system, so she doesn’t even need to leave the car. “I literally see no point in dressing up to impress just for drop-off,” says Hassan.
Decency is subjective
Many long-time UAE dwellers are accustomed to following vaguely defined dress codes out of respect. But for newer residents, unspoken cultural norms may not be so obvious or instinctive. And, in a melting pot of cultures, the type of clothing “appropriate” for school remains subjective.
“I believe in following rules, but equally in the live and let live theory,” says mum-of-three Khushi Malani. “Would a mum wearing tatty casuals or homewear feel uncomfortable by one dressed to the nines on the school run? And if she did, is that ‘right’?
“I might not wear a sports bra or short-shorts to my children’s school myself, but neither am I going to judge the women who choose to do so.”
Some schools do put up signs about respecting cultural norms – White says the entrance to her children's school has signs and illustrations signifying “cultural preferences are for shoulders and knees to be covered” – but not all schools do so.
So while the style parents don on the school run might make for a hot topic in WhatsApp groups and around the dinner table, it remains up to the schools in question to define the parameters of appropriateness and communicate any dress-code guidelines clearly and directly to parents.