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As more countries in Europe are imposing the ‘Burqa Ban,’ activists in the Middle East in countries such as Qatar and United Arab Emirates (UAE) are interested in educating expatriates in their countries to follow a particular ‘dress code.’
The campaign “UAE Dress Code” was initiated by two local residents of UAE, Hanan Al Rayes and Asma Al Muhairi. These women did not approve of what foreigners, especially other women, wore in the country and were outraged at the sight of their clothing. One of their recent tweets stated, “Whether you like it or not, this country has its own culture that should be respected & protected by its own people.”
Simultaneously, in Qatar, Najla Al Mahmoud is the founder of “One of Us”, another public awareness campaign on the similar issue. She hopes to educate expatriates on this issue, and make both men and women aware of the Qatari culture. She wants to get people of both genders to cover up between the shoulders and knees. ”We are offended by this… but we are sure that people don’t know and we are sure that people will respect this. Why wouldn’t they? We want to educate them,” stated Al Mahmoud.
In the Gulf, most countries have the same dress code. Women are dressed in an ‘Abaya,’ a cloak like garment clad in black covering from head to toe, while men wear a white, ankle-length garment called a ‘Thobe/kandura’. Though this is traditional, Saudi Arabia is the only country with strict dressing rules. This applies especially to women; breaking the ‘dress code’ will have serious consequences. However, it is not mandatory in the other Gulf countries to stick to the traditional dress code.
In fact, since the campaigns started it has been discovered that there are loopholes in the constitutional article. For instance, Article 30 of the UAE Constitution states “Freedom of opinion and expressing it verbally, in writing or by other means of expression shall be guaranteed within the limits of the law.” But doesn’t state what ‘other means’ indicate, like whether minimal clothing can be assumed to be freedom of opinion. There is absolutely no mention of ‘dress code’ anywhere in the articles for the UAE or Qatar, be it for local residents or for expatriates. Article 57 of Qatar Constitution states: “The respect of the Constitution, compliance with the laws issued by Public Authority, abiding by public order and morality, observing national traditions and established customs is a duty of all who reside in the State of Qatar or enter its territory.” But again no direct mention on clothing is mentioned, or what outfits are considered indecent.
While some argue that the laws on this matter are just petty, and also say that expatriates should abide by the customs of the country and respect the culture, a member of UAE Federal National Council (FNC), Hamad Al Rahoumi, thinks that public awareness merely is not enough because people can chose to ignore them. However, enforcing a law would mean people are less likely to breach it.
Khalid Al Ameri, an Emirati columnist and blogger, agrees. “Enforcing laws pertaining to clothes could prove difficult and arbitrary. For example, a woman may choose to wear shorts and a baggy T-shirt and find herself in violation of a hypothetical law, whereas another girl might come wearing tight stuff that reveals more than it covers, but complies with the dress code”, she stated.
“We want Qatar to be a place for everyone. Something in the middle, not too extreme and not too loose,” Al Mahmoud said. Rahoumi agreed. “We don’t want them to cover their face. (but), I don’t want to see the underwear… It is not suitable.” These were comments from some officials in both countries in support of the campaign.
The campaign has received a divided response from the foreigners residing in Qatar. While many think it is important to make the public aware of what the locals really feel, some think a public awareness campaign on something more productive and deadly such as smoking should be carried out, instead of how people dress.
People residing in the gulf have also stated that high end designer stores should start selling skirts and tops more ‘local area friendly,’ with longer length, sleeves and a not-too-deep neck. Now the question arises, are expatriates merely the ones deemed to dress inappropriately?