A dress code is a matter of respect - not of a new law

#UAEDressCode has caused a commotion. A better solution than a law would be engaging with expatriates and tourists to encourage respectful attire.

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Well, ladies and gentlemen, it is official. #UAEDressCode, the public-awareness campaign that has been making waves across the Twitter-sphere for the past few weeks, has made its way into the Federal National Council.

During the latest meeting of the FNC this week, Dr Abdul Rahman Al Owais, the UAE Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development, told the Council that he supported the idea of instituting a dress code. FNC members have agreed to recommend that the Cabinet adopt a federal law on the issue.

Where do we stand today, as a country, to implement such a law? Probably the most tried and tested model is found in Sharjah, which implemented a decency law in 2001 covering a variety of topics in addition to clothing, such as public behaviour, and conduct in public property and places of worship.

The decency law in Sharjah also covers what would be needed to enforce the rules, degrees of punishment and the gradual pace of implementation. What I also thought was interesting was that the dress code specified by Sharjah also applies to men, while the Twitter campaign's focus has been on women.

Judging from the tone of the discussion, things are getting serious. A federal law would force a more hardline approach, raising many questions about how we, as a country, tackle issues on how people dress in public and general public behaviour.

First, it is important to make a distinction between a "dress code" and a "dress law". Dress codes are a way of life in many countries and in many social situations. There is a certain way we dress for school, for work and for public occasions.

Take, for example, a dress code in a restaurant: if you fail to comply, you are simply turned away and asked to come back in more appropriate attire. No harm done, lesson learnt. If a person wants to enjoy everything the public space has to offer, the mistake will probably not be repeated.

If a law is implemented, instead of being refused entry, you could be fined or arrested. It's a very different approach and a very different consequence for the same problem.

The UAE is one of the fastest- changing countries in the world. The Bedouin-to-businessman era has come with its fair share of culture shocks, so taking offence about certain attire in public is completely understandable. As a husband and father of two, I couldn't be more supportive of ensuring public decency, but this approach concerns me.

Adopting a new law may seem like an effective short-term solution. But the aforementioned dress code could have a much more lasting, influential effect. The penalty isn't criminal, but instead operates at a much more basic level - no one wants to be socially isolated. If people are excluded from a certain event, community or public space, say, because their shorts are a bit too short, it will educate them about how the community works, and about a basic level of cultural respect needed to be included in UAE society.

Second, if a law were passed, what would it look like? And how would it be implemented? In Dubai, authorities have advised women to cover their knees and shoulders. If a woman wears baggy shorts and a T-shirt, she may be technically in violation, but a woman wearing a tightfitting shirt and jeans, which might reveal more than it covers, is in complete compliance. Would it be safe to say that it is not really what you wear, but how you wear it?

The worrying thing is that enforcing a dress law would be at the discretion of the individual passing judgement. Even if there were a law, there would still be complaints. You can only please so many people, and it would be interesting to see how much work went into differentiating what is appropriate and what is not.

Last but not least is freedom of expression, which I believe is one of the most important aspects to consider if a dress law were to be enforced. One must ask how much personal freedom would be taken away from members of society.

That leads us to the larger discussion of indecent behaviour in public. There have been several cases about kissing in public places or, as one FNC member said, "kissing passionately". This is frowned upon in societies across the world, and a phrase - "get a room" - quickly comes to mind.

Having said that, what is inappropriate for me might not be inappropriate for others. For example, if a husband gives his wife an innocent kiss on the cheek when they greet each other at the mall, this might seem perfectly normal to everyone except the couple sitting at the next table, who might choose to report them. You can only imagine the spiral of police questioning and court hearings that could result.

The all-important question is where we draw the line. Do we take a hardline approach? Or do we take a gradual approach, welcoming our guests and educating them? That is the approach that we have become famous for around the world.

The suggestion about a draft federal law was justified by mentioning the French ban of the niqab. But the example makes me think of the hardships faced by so many women who choose to wear niqabs in European societies, not to mention the international scrutiny that France has faced. Thousands of Muslim women have had their human rights violated. Worst of all, women have been attacked just for wearing the very clothes that they believe are a form of their own expression, not a symbol of oppression.

This began as #UAEDressCode, and I believe that we should focus on just that - a code - that people have a choice about. They can abide by that code, and in return be allowed into every public space and activity, or otherwise be politely turned away. I would like to think that when people are given a choice, they usually choose for the better and are receptive to hosts who educate rather than punish. That is the UAE I know and love.

Khalid Al Ameri is a social columnist and blogger based in Abu Dhabi

On Twitter: @KhalidAlAmeri