Tailoring a dress code to the UAE would be a struggle

Opinions on whether modest dressing should be written into federal law are as diverse as the people who live in the country. Here is a sample of what Emiratis and expatriates think.

A young couple in Ibn Battuta Mall. A UAE minister told the FNC today that he supports the idea of enforcing a federal law on dress codes in UAE malls. Razan Alzayani / The National
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It began with a Twitter campaign launched by two young Emiratis and has now reached the FNC, leading to calls for government legislation.

The heated question of what is acceptable to wear in public brings out strongly held opinions among Emiratis and expatriates.

But it is dangerous to assume that concern about dress codes and what constitutes a modest appearance divides easily along lines of nationality, culture or religion. Like the UAE, the issue reflects a diversity of opinions.

A survey yesterday taken for The National's website shows that many believe there is a problem. More than half said they saw someone dressed inappropriately every day.

And while only four out of 10 thought the problem was worsening, six out of 10 thought expatriates and non-Muslims did not show sensitivity to local values when it came to choosing what to wear in public.

Men and women were almost equally represented in the survey, as were Muslims and non-Muslims. Of the 320 who responded, 20 per cent were Emiratis, again equally divided between men and women.

On the streets of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, a range of views emerged. Khawla Al Haremy, 25, an administrative assistant in the capital, said she was in favour of legislation.

"I'm totally against seeing people walking in malls wearing inappropriate clothes because I don't want my children to see this," she said.

"I don't go to beaches because I'm expecting it there, but not in shopping malls and public places."

Maymouna Al Junaibi, who works for the Abu Dhabi Education Council agreed.

"We are a Muslim country," she said. "It is only normal that we encourage the dress code. We want them to wear decent clothes, that's all." She said she would like to see the law implemented as soon as possible.

Sharifa Al Boloshi from Abu Dhabi said a dress code would be enough.

"I think that the best way to go with this is by educational and awareness campaigns, because having a law will affect the image of the country," she said.

"The country has a good reputation in terms of freedom for foreigners and this would have a negative effect on it."

Some even thought any attempt to impose standards of dress was impractical. Sara Al Obaidli, 25, a customer service manager, said what people wore was "a matter of personal freedom".

"Foreigners would not accept such changes in a short time, and this might cause sensitivity between them and the Emirati nationals," she said.

Amna Ali, 47, disputed that a law would drive away tourists. "I don't want my children to see and imitate them in what they wear," she said.

"They have to respect local culture because it's good for the local people and for the next generation of Emiratis who might be affected by it."

Many expatriates also expressed concerns about standards of public modestly.

The company director Sandy Stack, 50, has lived in Dubai for four years with her Iraqi-born husband.

"I've been married to a Muslim for 16 years so I do feel I have an understanding of the issues, and I think it's important to respect the culture and the religion of the place you live in," said Ms Stack, originally from Cork, Ireland.

"When I first came to Dubai I was more conservative in my dress probably for that reason."

Wearing shorts for a trip to Dubai's Marina Mall, she admitted: "I wouldn't wear what I'm wearing today to the Mall of the Emirates or Dubai Mall, because there are so many more people there and there are far more locals.

"But here in Marina Mall I feel fine and I would probably be a bit offended if anybody said that my shorts were too short."

Solange Dyro, 29, a financial planner from Switzerland who has lived and worked in Dubai for four years, said: "I think that your behaviour in public and what you think is acceptable is directly linked with what you wear.

"If you respect the place you live in then you are aware in your fashion choices. You cover up a bit, you know that Dubai is a pretty tolerant place but you also know that there is a line.

"When you see a woman in tiny shorts on the Metro and they're obviously not exactly 14 any more, it's not nice.

But Ms Dyro added: "Telling people this is a legal thing - that's too strong. A law about dress wouldn't put me off living here but I don't think it is the right approach."

Some of those questioned seemed to think the mall was a place where less modesty was required.

Olivia Hingray, 22, visiting Dubai for job interviews, has lived in the emirate before. She found Dubai "a very open place, in general".

"I wouldn't dress like this in my little shorts and top if I was in Deira but to come to the mall I think it is fine," Ms Hingray said.

"If I'm going to the beach I will wear one thing and if I'm going to work I will wear something else."

Catherine Manansala, 30, a receptionist from the Philippines, said: "Today I'm dressed for work. I'm a receptionist at an engineering firm.

"I wouldn't wear something like this on my day off. If I am just going to the mall I wear a little skirt, sometimes little shorts. I have never been criticised but I don't dress the same wherever I go.

"I have never been approached by anybody and told that I am not dressed properly but I have been stared at, and so the next time I go to that area I am more aware. Or I just don't go to that area."

Mershen Pillay, a South African speech pathologist who has lived in Abu Dhabi for almost 10 years, said while women generally understood shoulders should be covered in public and skirts should be below the knee, for men it was much less clear.

"I have been excluded from entering Bawadi Mall in Al Ain wearing Bermuda shorts down to the knees and a T-shirt," he said. "I remember an incident in Dubai where a woman walked off the beach into a shopping mall with a sarong over her bikini and she was asked to leave the mall.

"So the definition of cover up is open to interpretation because if you're covering up with a see-through sarong, is that really covering up?"

The prospect of laws to govern dress concerned some expatriates, including Diana Elizabeth, who moved from Germany to Abu Dhabi eight months ago.

"I understand why there is a need for a government dress code but at the same time I would be afraid if I was the UAE Government that it might affect tourists coming here," Ms Elizabeth said.

"However, every stranger coming to this country should abide by the laws and rules and even though it's about clothing, it's the same.

"People think they can come here and dress how they want to, and it's easy to see how that might happen because it's a very liberal, open country.

Bernadeth Kaartika, from Indonesia and five months pregnant, said she was aware of the conventions of dress, but that "deciding what is appropriate depends on other people's thinking".

"Abu Dhabi has very hot weather, so if I wear a closed dress when I am pregnant it is not comfy for me," Ms Kaartika said.

Arun Taneja, a businessman from Indonesia visiting Abu Dhabi for the third time, said he had noticed that "tourists sometimes dress too casually - such as women wearing tank tops and very short skirts, and men wearing shorts and vests - which may not go down well culturally.

"However I come here on business so I'm mainly in my associates' office and then we head to the hotel. So I have not noticed inappropriate dress here."

In the end, expatriates and Emirates agreed there should be standards of dress wherever you are.

Heidi Ciarlo, a Canadian teacher who has lived in Abu Dhabi for five years said: "There are people in the malls that I've seen, such as a woman wearing a crochet top over a bikini. That wouldn't be acceptable in Canada.

"Do I want dress code policy to go as far as Saudi Arabia? No. But I do think people should understand we are very blessed in this country that we are able to be as free as we are in our dress and that covering your shoulders is not a high price to pay for that."

Dalal Abdullah, a housewife shopping at Khalidiyah Mall in Abu Dhabi, said: "If you go to Harrods in London, there is a law against photography, shorts and sleeveless shirts, and everyone respects it."

Naeema Al Mazrouei, 40, a mother of five, said it was simply a question of good manners for visitors to show awareness of a country's culture and traditions.

"Our women's decency in appearance is one of the pillars of our society," she said. "All nationalities are welcomed but respect our general traditions. I think we have reached a point where what is seen in the streets or malls near beaches means a law is needed and should be enforced in our beloved country."