Cracking the UAE dress code can be tough

Take our poll: Kanduras and abayas have proven remarkably resilient amid the UAE's headlong modernisation but some face barriers when they choose to wear traditional Emirati attire.

No entry: because of his clothes, this man can only watch the action at Ski Dubai. Randi Sokoloff / The National
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Kanduras and abayas have proven remarkably resilient amid the UAE's headlong modernisation, but some face barriers when they choose to wear traditional Emirati attire on a night out with friends.

There are places where kanduras and abayas are not appropriate. You are, for example, unlikely to find a picket line of angry Emiratis outside Skydive Dubai demanding the right to parachute in traditional dress.

In almost any other situation, whether it's on a date farm in the Empty Quarter or the company boardroom on the top floor of a gleaming skyscraper, kanduras and abayas remain an element of traditional culture that has adapted seamlessly to the modern UAE.

But the threshold for where traditional dress is and isn't allowed remains somewhat blurry and seemingly dependent on whim rather than fixed policy.

Last week, Saeed Saeed noted in his column in The National that he had been banned from bowling in a kandura for "safety" reasons. Since bowling is the most egalitarian of sports "if that doesn't go against the spirit of what this game is about, I don't know what does", he observed.

That rule is enforced at Marina Mall in Abu Dhabi, where ten-pin bowling enthusiasts are welcomed - but not if they wish to play while wearing traditional dress.

For one such bowling fan, Anood Lari, it was not the only obstacle she faced at Marina Mall because of her choice to wear an abaya.

"Another experience I've had was with a store, where I applied for a part-time job and they told me they'd have me working there only if I didn't wear the abaya," she said.

"It's quite discouraging and sometimes feels a little disrespectful to our culture.

"I've been told a few times that I cannot bowl wearing my abaya at Marina Mall because they were following 'international safety procedures/laws'. I respect and understand that, but in a country such as the UAE, it's not very practical."

Just across town in Zayed Sports City, Ms Lari would be able to bowl in her abaya - but any male competitor would have to change into western attire if he wanted to challenge her.

However, in the Northern Emirates, where ten-pin bowling is one of the most popular ways for the locals to pass the time, kanduras and abayas pose no barrier to participation. If they were, the lanes would become deserted.

Ski Dubai is another site that bans national dress, but only for those skiing or snowboarding on the indoor ski slope.

"Regarding the kandura and abaya, it is not allowed to have them for ski or SB [snowboard]," a Ski Dubai spokesman said.

"They can wear them only if they want to have a walk inside the snow park."

The reason was for reasons of safety rather than warmth, the company stated.

"First it restricts movement and doesn't help with the balance on skis," the company said.

"Then it can get stuck under the skis or binding and cause a fall or injury."

The slope's code does not just affect those in national dress. Ski Dubai is also used for training by mountaineers, who hike up and down the snow slope before it opened to the public to prepare for climbing peaks such as Kilimanjaro. On a few occasions, participants have been denied entry by security staff if they are clad in shorts and told they need more robust clothing.

Other Emiratis say they have never faced any barrier caused by wearing national dress.

Omar Al Ayoobi, an engineer with the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (Dewa), said there were times when he opted not to wear his kandura but that was always for reasons of practicality and at his own behest rather than because of a rule imposed by others.

"If you're on a beach, swimming or playing football, in these cases you'd wear other things," he said.

"If you're invited to a ceremony outside the UAE then a suit might be more comfortable to talk to people.

"Of course the kandura is a uniform but this doesn't mean you'll wear it in any place. If you're at a big hotel or something like a resort, you want to be more free.

"When you wear shorts, you're more free than wearing a kandura. If you're playing football it's better to wear shorts. In a kandura, it's hard to jump from place to place.

"I think when I'm in a kandura," he added with a laugh, "I have to be more quiet."

At Dewa there is a policy allowing either western business attire or traditional dress.

Mr Al Ayoobi said his work was sometimes hands-on, which was sometimes inconvenient and dirty when dressed in a kandura, although he was also able to enlist the help of office staff to assist.

"My work at Dewa as an engineer is technical work and I have to support customers," he added.

"If there's a printer problem, it means I have to go under the desk to connect cables and that will be harder in a kandura. In this case, it's not easy."

In such cases, he was able to wear his gutra in the more practical method, wrapped around his head rather than loose with an agal.

"I've never been in any place where a kandura isn't allowed.

"It's not like a private company. In a public authority or the government, they support the managers and you can wear a kandura.

"If we're going to the shopping mall, we'll wear our kandura. If we're going to a wedding we sometimes have to wear a more stylish one.

"There's no problem wearing a kandura. Elsewhere, it might be different but in the [Arabian] Gulf countries, we're doing something for ourselves that's traditional."

Alia Al Shamlan, who works for the Jumeirah Group, said she had also never faced any ban on wearing the abaya, although it was not always the most practical attire.

"I drive a Jeep Wrangler so it's not that practical to wear an abaya sometimes, but you get used to it," she said.

"The concept is to be covered - it doesn't have to be an abaya. We can cover with anything so long as it's decent. When I ride my bike, I wear a long blouse and something that covers my legs."

The only time she had heard of an abaya ban was when a friend was refused entry to a nightclub because she was wearing traditional dress.

"That's in a club. I've never been in a club and I don't want to go, but I know people who go to have fun and it [the abaya] wasn't allowed in there," Al Shamlan added.

While there were detriments to wearing the abaya, there were also benefits. When she was based in Scotland, she chose to cover her hair but to eschew traditional dress.

She estimated she had to get out of bed 20 minutes earlier than she would in the Emirates because she had to coordinate her clothing with her accessories rather than just donning a black abaya.

"I struggled when I wore different clothes. I had to change to wear something matching my shayla," she added. "I really did wish I could wear my abaya."