in collaboration with Said Hamideh
That is the question for women visiting the Middle East. In Sex and the City 2 we witness Sarah Jessica Parker and the entourage donning burkas to escape the wrath of locals. And yet they also parade around in some pretty revealing clothes such as in that scene where they visit a Dubai souk. A reality which is almost passable, but not quite. Like many other aspects of that movie, it is difficult to take away some kind of reliable lesson.
This begs the question, then: what really is the proper dress code for women in the Middle East? Are there any strict rules or it is just the figment of mostly western tourists’ imagination? The answer lies somewhere between two extremes.
The infamous Mutawwa of Saudi Arabia will not confront you as long as you do not show any skin! This means you can wear denim and a long-sleeved shirt and top that off with a scarf on your head that covers your hair. And no, even in Saudi Arabia you will not be required to cover your face.
It’s pretty entertaining, though, how often outsiders project the image of Saudi Arabia’s conservative culture onto other countries. For example, some people will ask what is permissible to wear in Lebanon because, well, Lebanon happens to be in the Middle East.
Unless you are the daughter within a conservative religious family in Lebanon, you are probably freer, in the sartorial sense, to do whatever you want – and from all visual clues available, you are probably more free than in the US. Said Hamideh has yet to witness a single burka or niqab in Beirut.
In the United Arab Emirates, Dubai is the place where you can wear shorts, skirts and tank tops without any fear of persecution even if there are somehwat precise dress code rules displayed in the malls these days; however Abu Dhabi, which is also an Emirate within the UAE, is more conservative and dress codes may be enforced more diligently. In other gulf countries, you do not need to cover your head but a little more modesty is required. The same is the case in Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar; however some predict that this will change for Qatar as they open to the world in the ramp up for the 2022 World Cup.
Some of the other countries such as Egypt and Syria do not have rules that are codified into law, although soft norms that address female attire can be tacitly prescribed on a sub-cultural case-by-case basis.
Old Vs New
It is advisable to dress properly while visiting older or rural areas of the Arab World (this is why the scene from Sex in the City 2 doesn’t exactly fly as the souks of Dubai are, generally speaking, a more conservative area compared to the glam cosmopolitanism of Dubai Mall). People in areas that have historically experienced less dialogue with outsiders are more conservative and may be sensitive towards your attire in ways that you may not even be aware of. Still, they would not harm you for any faux pas, although once Said Hamideh did get mocked for wearing red shorts as he was told that red shorts were effeminate. In modern parts of Arab cities, especially in shopping malls and up-market restaurants, you can stroll around in liberal clothing. Malls in Beirut and Dubai, for instance, tend to exhibit a bewildering kaleidoscope of fashion morality.
The rules, just like everything else, keep changing
Today’s improper may be tomorrow’s proper. Let’s face it, a lot of the style influencing female attire throughout the Islamic world has transformed fairly quickly throughout the last three decades. You will see that in many countries, in Iran and the gulf, an abaya, the traditional black robe intended to obscure female form, may no longer do such a thing. To the contrary many abayas may still be black and covering the skin, but now come in more form-fitting styles that have come to actually accentuate female forms. Many of these designer abayas seems to have somehow evaded mainstream dictums for conservative dress and are now at their height of popularity within younger groups of females.
Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan and there is a general atmosphere of piety and self-retrospection. As a courtesy, wear modest clothing. It is not a bad idea if you cover your head while around a mosque.
What About Men?
In these parts of the world, the dress code largely applies to women. This, however, does not mean that men do not face restrictions on attire. You cannot take your shirt off in a public place in Saudi Arabia or even in a mall in Abu Dhabi.
One thing is clear though. Women planning to visit the Middle East should know that there is a lot of diversity, even within countries that are “conservative”. Oftentimes, a simple head scarf worn by the expat will be enough as your token gesture of respect to the local culture.