I won’t lie to you — I was nervous, nay, reluctant, about moving to the Middle East. It just didn’t sound like a good place for a belligerent West Indian feminist. I had heard all these horror stories and urban legends about ‘poor innocent foreigners’ getting locked up by the morality police for inappropriate behavior. For example, there is a story floating around about some guy who got into a taxi totally smashed out of his mind and the taxi driver took him to the police station. Is the story true? Somehow I doubt it, but people love to repeat it.
One of my main concerns was what it would be like to live here as a foreign woman. But from the first day that I arrived, I realised that a lot of my assumptions about Dubai were in many ways wrong (and boy was that a relief!). In fact, I was shocked out of my mind when I went into the Mall of the Emirates (the one with the ski slope) and saw all these women walking around with their T&A hanging out all over the place for everyone to see. Friends have told me that on the beaches some people wear thongs! That is something people don’t even do in Trinidad. And the bars are full of some of the most gorgeous and exquisitely dressed prostitutes you ever will see in your whole life!
Dubai is surprisingly liberal, and touted as the most liberal Middle Eastern country you could possibly live in. The laws are conservative, but in practice and in your daily life, it is a pretty normal place and an easy place for expats. I know a Trini who just moved to Qatar, and according to her stories Qatar is a whole different kettle of fish. So I am finding that a lot of the scary stereotypes that I had in my mind prior to coming here are proving to just be sensationalism. Yes, the story about the British couple getting jailed for having sex on the beach is real. But, do you think you are allowed to have sex on the beach in any other country and not get arrested? Is it not common sense? But because the incident took place in a Muslim country, and the ‘victims’ were white, it became a big story all over the world. It’s stories like these that make the front page, though in fact they were in the wrong, and would be in the wrong in any country.
But on the topic of dress code, even though a lot of people here seem to do as they like and wear what they would back home, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is considered kosher. When you go into the malls, they DO have signs asking you to please respect the local culture and dress appropriately. The picture I’ve posted above, which was in the mall, just asks you to cover your shoulders and knees. So simply put, no pum-pum shorts and spaghetti strap tops. Note it does not say ‘Women must wear a burka and walk four steps behind their husband or male relative’. I don’t think this basic request to dress respectfully (they even said please!) is such a big deal, to tell you the truth, as it is not that hard to follow. After all, in Paris, you can’t enter any of the big Cathedrals if you are dressed inappropriately. Even some museums in China have dress codes. I figure if I can respect that in other countries, I can respect that in Dubai.
So, how do I dress in Dubai? When I go out, my normal uniform is capris (to the knees) and a short sleeved shirt. T-shirts or baby tees and jeans are also fine. Long-sleeved Indian style blouses seem popular since they are good for dealing with the hot weather. At night time, in the bars and clubs, I have seen women dressed in really sexy short tight dresses, but I don’t have the balls to leave the house like that yet. (And even if I did, I would probably at least throw a pashmina over my shoulders when I left home and then stuff it back into my handbag when I arrived.) In the winter the temperature will drop to as low as 12’C so by then ‘covering up’ will seem like a good idea!
I suppose the question of whether you should ‘cover up’ in Dubai is a somewhat personal choice. I figure do what makes you feel comfortable. I personally don’t feel comfortable wearing revealing clothes and having men gawk at me, but then again I didn’t feel so comfortable doing that in Trinidad. That said, I also think that when you go to someone else’s country, you should try to respect their culture. I suppose I am lucky that I am in Dubai, where ‘covering up’ is an option, and not mandatory.