The Next Time You Head To Abu Dhabi, You Better Cover Up Because They’re About To Give Tourists A Dress Code

People are flocking to United Arab Emirates like it’s going out of style. Perhaps we can blame Carrie Bradshaw and the gang, or maybe it’s just because the weather is so awesome. However there’s a problem with all these foreigners infiltrating the area — they’re dressing and acting as they would in their own country with a total disregard to the culture in which they’re staying.

The indecency code is being violated left and right. But what constitutes indecency in that part of the world? Well the shit us Americans pull on a nightly basis to be honest. Drinking in bars? Wrong. PDA? Wrong. Fucking if you’re not married? Wrong. So wrong, in fact, that you will find yourself facing a judge because of it. And forget about getting it on in public — that behavior is not tolerated.

So as the tourists increase, some people aren’t down with the situation and the Western fashion that is taking hold and disrupting their everyday life. As Asma al-Muhairi points out, seeing “scantily-clad” lady tourists is not OK in her book so she wants to remedy the situation.

“While going to a mall, I saw two ladies wearing … I can’t say even shorts. It was underwear,” said al-Muhairi, whose black abaya – a long garment worn by conservative Gulf women – is offset by a gold Versace watch and egg-shell blue handbag.

“Really, they were not shorts,” she said. “I was standing and thinking: `Why is this continuing? Why is it in the mall? I see families. I see kids around.’”

Families and kids should not be subjected to such things! (So says this Westerner who sits in her undies as she writes this.)

Although it’s mostly the Emiratis who have an issue with this, and they make up only 10% of the the 8 million people livng in the Gulf nation, it might be a hard rule to pass. However, those who are offended by these tourists and their complete lack of respect for the religion and the culture of the country in which they’re visiting, are hoping to fight back and change the rules.

While this small group fights the good fight, one has to wonder if it’s fair. Should you have to tone down you just because you’re traveling to a different country? So many tone down themselves in certain situations in their personal and professional life (ie. covering tattoos at jobs and family dinners, etc), but if you’re on vacation should you have to do that? And if you do, will it prevent you from visiting a country because of it? To be honest, considering the heat there, if I wore to visit, you would not see me in a black abaya; you’d see me the way I dress on any given, sweaty day in NYC:  too much skin exposed to swallow. It’s not out of lack of respect, it’s just me.


Photo: Warner Bros.

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    • sheherbano

      but, but, you can argue that ‘you’re on vacation and shouldn’t have to answer to anyone’ til you’re blue in the face – the fact still remains that you’re taking this vacation in a place where there are certain codes of conduct and where certain things, though they may not be to you, are seen as disrespectful. it’s not just the whole ‘male gaze’ issue with women being required to cover up so men don’t *have to jump them*..a lot of men in that culture will feel uncomfortable seeing other people’s bodies. it’s something for another time and place and there are things that are kept sacred. i’m not saying i agree with whatever views or doctrines they may subscribe to, but it’s their place of living, and i do think it’s a little off to imply that they should put their beliefs, as a culture, on hold, just because a Westerner who thinks they’re oppressive wants to patronise their country for a holiday and doesn’t feel that they should have to answer to anyone while not at work. courtesy is good.

      • holleeta

        But one can also make the argument that places such as Abu Dhabi and Dubai have built themselves to appeal to tourism from wealthy Westerners and as such should tolerate our culture. It’s not as if we are going to a small town in Saudi Arabia driving our cars around naked.

      • sheherbano

        so you’re saying that because they, as countries, try to boost their economy by making the place pretty and what you would condescend to consider a good holiday spot, the people who live there, whose values and whose culture you may be undermining or disrespecting, should just sit back and be grateful? doesn’t feel right to me. i’m sorry.

    • Jessica

      Completely disagree. When you go on vacation, you should adhere to the cultural norms in the place you are visiting. You are a guest in their country, and failing to follow the expected norms common to that place is just bad manners and disrespectful. There is an area in between that abaya and obscenely short shorts, and moderation appropriate to the culture you visit should be exercised – when it’s not, it’s just perpetuating the negative stereotype of Western tourists to the rest of the world. It’s not toning down yourself, it’s showing respect for the culture you chose to visit. If their culture isn’t what one feels they can moderate themselves for, they should choose another destination they can deal with.

    • Phil

      The question is mute to me because I am half Jewish; and a liberal pacifist….I would never go there…..I would feel like I’m entering a war zone.

      Though I do agree, if I was not half Jewish, that as a visitor there, that I should go out of my way to respect that counties ways; but if someone goes there, and does not respect their ways they should just simply deport them, in a friendly manner.

      I know for me in the United States it drives me up the wall, when people from other countries come to the United States and act like they are working for some rich sheik in Saudi Arabia, when people have fought wars over trying to have America be a true liberal democracy.

    • Dawn

      Wow, this is obviously written by someone who has never been to UAE. The decency laws are rarely enforced (against white or Western women anyways), but even in the most conservative Emirate, Sharjah, essentially what the law requires is that you cover your shoulders and your knees (cleavage is of course also verboten).

      And Sharjah is the only dry Emirate – aside from there, you’ll have no trouble getting alcohol in a bar or at the store. You can even buy pork in some places if you show your passport! Holding hands or hugging isn’t a problem (outside Ramadan fasting hours), though groping and making out in a public space could get you asked to stop. And the number of ex-pats kicked out of UAE or charged with sex outside marriage in a year can be counted on two hands, if that.

      I was asked to cover in mosques (and provided with the hijab and abaya to do so at no cost), but aside from that felt perfectly comfortable wearing knee-length skirts and short-sleeve shirts everywhere. I wore bathing suits at the pool and beach without problems, and sleeveless items at times, but four fewer inches of fabric didn’t make me any cooler in 48 degree humidity anyways. In a place filled with Westerners, there was no difference in reaction, though I did notice more frequent stares (largely from the Indian subcontinent guest workers – the Emirati men generally ignore Western women) on the streets when my shoulders were showing. No one ever harassed or touched me, and the attempts to “woo” me were far less intense than in Turkey, Italy or Paris.

      Much like in other countries, when one is going out to a club or a place largely frequented by Westerners, you’ll see a lot more skin and that is accepted. But I was shocked at what some women chose to wear in a relatively conservative Muslim country in the streets, at the malls, etc. Seriously, it shouldn’t be considered an imposition to cover your thighs and breasts in a public space between the hours of 8 am and 8 pm. Show some respect to local customs! Also, it’s the fricking desert – given the intensity of the sun and heat, it’s also just a bit stupid to wander around so uncovered.

      As for how the 10% Emirati population could enforce this: visas and work permits. Most of the people who are there come to work, and will obey the rules if it means they can continue making money. Also, dress codes aren’t voted on by anyone who happens to be in the country – the laws are made by the government.

      Also, the Western workers and tourists (who are second rung on the food chain, after Emiratis) are also a minority – the vast majority of foreign workers are also from relatively conservative countries, like Parkistan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, India or Gulf and North African nations. These groups may not wear the national dress (for women, generally the abaya and hijab), but they do tend to show far less skin than Westerners. They certainly aren’t going to be up in arms if some Western women are asked to be a bit more covered.

      Oh, and while largely decency law dress codes are applied to women, I saw several men at the Zayed mosque in Abu Dhabi given long sleeve shirts and dishdashas to wear when they tried to enter in shorts or short sleeve shirts.

      • breezy

        Very informative! It’s hard to form an opinion on something I’ve never experienced and is often distorted through a biased cultural lens.

        If anyone is interested in some fascinating work on media presentations of the Middle East, check out Edward Said’s article on orientalism. It was written decades ago, pre-war on terrorism and it’s scary how similar things are today. It’s also pretty easy to read, nothing too academic or pompous.

    • koolchicken

      I don’t see a problem with covering up, in fact I wish people over here did it more often. I think dressing like a hooker has become so common place that when we see a woman (or man) in a sleeveless top and shorts they seem covered up by comparison. Most of the time I wear knee length or longer skirts, and I often wear stockings. For on top (assuming I’m not in a dress) I wear camisoles but always under a cardigan or other top, my shoulders and upper arms are covered as are my breasts. Oh, and did I mention I live in Hawaii? So the argument “It’s too hot” holds no weight with me.

      When you visit other countries respect their customs, especially when all that’s being asked is for you to wear clothes that cover.

    • mp

      Don`t leave the freedom of your country to subject yourself to an ancient country. I will never understand why people want to be where they don`t belong. We have so many beautiful places at this side of the world that going to visit countries with such life style make me feel sick.

      • Dawn

        Enjoy staying home and enjoying the “freedom” of an ever-widening chasm between the rich and the poor, infant mortality rates in certain counties that put many third world countries to shame, a legacy of genocides (both in terms of the Aboriginal populations and the ongoing cultural genocide for African Americans), and a right wing that wants to remove your ability to access abortion or birth control, as well as can’t accept that a biracial man could be born in America and then become President. Seriously, what an ignorant comment!

        Human rights abuses occur in every country, and travel is an amazing way to learn more about the countries and cultures that many people in settler societies come from. “Subjecting” myself to “ancient” countries has allowed me to get past media hype and speak to people who have different experiences than me, see how they live, and understand the world a bit better.

        It has helped me be profoundly grateful to have been born in a country with free health care (go Canada!), where primary and secondary education are free and post-secondary is relatively cheap, and where being a girl child didn’t stifle my access to this education, where clean water and enough food are the default situation. It has also helped me remember that happiness isn’t things, kindness is a universal language, wisdom doesn’t necessarily come from a book, and courage can mean speaking out against a military dictator or raising your children well in spite of hardships. And that my country doesn’t necessarily have all the answers or do everything right – generally, we are wasteful, ungrateful, willing to ignore the real price of our wealth and lifestyles. And the problems in my back yard are pressing too, but I can’t just focus on them given the whole world out there.

        I am a human, and a citizen of both Canada and the world. I belong everywhere that will have me, and if you want to stay home and feel sick that I am breaking the Ramadan fast with a Saudi in Abu Dhabi, learning about Sufism from a UK citizen who fled Iran at 16 in Beirut, learning backgammon and discussing politics and religion with a Kurd in Anatolia, and having tea with an Egyptian human rights activist in Cairo, then enjoy your isolation and ignorance.

      • I

        Agree 100% with your statement Dawn! Go Canada and New Zealand!

    • Andrea

      While I find their practices archaic and would never dream of giving them my tourism money (enough that I don’t have a choice of giving them my oil money), it is their country, their culture, and their rules. I firmly believe in doing as the Romans when in Rome.

      And honestly, we get downright pissy when foreigners try to impose their laws/customs/rules here, so why shouldn’t the opposite be true? Why should they adjust to our precense? We don’t like it when they tell us to adjust to theirs.

      If you don’t like their rules, don’t vacation there. There are a million places on this earth that are awesome and don’t have barbaric laws. Personally, I would love to vacation in one of those tiny islands where clothing is optional and public sex encouraged. ;)

    • Bemused

      Oh, Heaven forbid that we be barred from our God-given right to dress like hookers in public! How dare the locals motion for respect of their cultural and religious norms!

      While SATC2′s views on Abu Dhabi may have been entertaining, the author’s position that vacations are a space in which to go wild with “being me” are just ignorant.
      The point of travel is to experience new locales and enhance one’s culture. A warm welcome cannot be expected anywhere when visitors display the kind of attitude that the author proposes.

      There is no point in arguing about a “right to be me” when that right turns out to be disrespectful. What would be next? Demanding that Japanese people allow visitors to walk around their homes with their shoes? Demanding that phone calls be allowed during Mass?

      Next time, perhaps pick a naturist camp if wearing a decent amount of clothes is too difficult?