Dubai dress code: 'Cover up', UAE women tell foreigners

An Emirati couple sit beside the sea on a beach in Dubai Foreigners and Emiratis sometimes have different ideas of what constitutes appropriate dress

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It was a Saturday afternoon and I was meeting a friend for coffee in one of Dubai's extravagant shopping malls.

I put on a flowery dress which went to just below the knee and I grabbed a cardigan to cover my shoulders and wrap up warmly - mindful that the air-conditioning in shopping malls here is on full-blast to compensate for temperatures that reach the low fifties in the summer.

I browsed through a few shops while waiting for my friend and it wasn't long before I noticed a lady staring at me.

Dressed in the traditional black cloak, or abaya, she was veiled and her face was covered with a niqab. All I could see were her eyes - and they were firmly pinned on me.

I'd only just moved to Dubai and it had - until this point - seemed pretty relaxed. People sunbathed on the beach; for a foreigner, having a drink in a bar seemed OK too. But as I was being stared at, I was beginning to feel regret.

Why did I come out wearing a dress? I've got it so wrong, I should have worn trousers. The woman kept staring. Finally she turned to her husband. They were now both staring at me and it was getting awkward.

A few words were exchanged between the couple and then a whisper. "Where did you get that dress?" she said. And then a big thumbs up. "It's great, I love it."

The Ibn Batutta Mall in Dubai Dubai's many extravagant shopping malls require shoppers to dress modestly

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One tweet suggested setting up a police department where you could complain about inappropriate clothing. Another said 'an extra few inches of cloth won't kill you' ”

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While I was given the seal of approval, not every foreigner here is getting it right. In recent weeks, rumours have circulated of men in skimpy swimming trunks walking down the street; of women doing their grocery shopping wearing bikinis.

Fed up with what's seen as a lack of respect for the local culture, two young Emirati women started a twitter campaign called #UAEDressCode, urging foreigners to cover up in public places.

And hundreds of people have weighed in - with one tweet suggesting setting up a police department where you could complain about inappropriate clothing. "An extra few inches of cloth won't kill you," said another.

Twenty-three-year-old Asma started the campaign with a friend. Greeting me, and wearing a low-cut tunic and leggings in the privacy of her own home, she told me why she got involved.

"The way some people dress here is offensive to our beliefs," she told me. "Malls are public places and there are families and children." A sundress, she says, is good for a beach, but not for shopping.

All the malls here have notices at the entrances asking shoppers to cover their shoulders and knees but Asma says that is not enough. She wants a law to be introduced to ensure the dress code is adhered to.

From Our Own Correspondent

  • Broadcast on Saturdays at 11:30 BST on BBC Radio 4, and weekdays on BBC World Service

When in Rome, do as the Romans do, the saying goes.

But in Rome, the Romans are the majority - here in the UAE, Emiratis make up less than 20% of the population's estimated 8 million people.

So the government here has a difficult balance to strike, ensuring the local population is looked after while not putting off tourism and trade with too many rules and regulations either.

Regional unrest

And there is another issue at play - politics. Although the UAE has been largely insulated from regional unrest, helped by a generous welfare system for its people, the government is very aware of what is happening elsewhere.

Ahmed Mansoor is a blogger and pro-democracy activist whose views led to him spending some time in prison last year for criticising the authorities.

He thinks that while the dress code campaign probably has no political dimension, the government wouldn't want to bring in a law on clothing - because it might send a message to conservative Islamists that their views were being given too much weight.

But these are testing times in the region and the government here has a difficult line to tread.

Islamism is gaining popularity in other parts of the Middle East - so perhaps it's significant that respecting Islamic values is becoming quite a talking point here as well.

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