When in Rome, do as the Romans do. We’ve all heard it. We’ve all probably at least tried to abide by it at some point or another during our travels. It’s not always that easy to do, though, especially since tourist hot spots around the world seem to be becoming increasingly diverse. The “Romans” aren’t a necessarily a neat little group of like-minded people sharing the same culture, religion, or values.
Take Dubai, for instance. The BBC recently reported on the Twitter campaign #UAEDressCode, started by young Muslim women in the United Arab Emirates, to urge foreigners to dress more modestly. Reporter Katy Watson quotes Asma, one of the organizers:
“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.
Asma and her companions aren’t just targeting women parading around in bikinis or other skimpy clothing. Men are likewise expected to adhere to public notices asking patrons to keep their shoulders and knees covered. Tweets from the group range from suggestions that “an extra few inches of cloth won’t kill you,” to the need for a separate police department to deal with clothing related offenses. While setting up a special branch of law enforcement seems a little excessive, dressing modestly out of respect for prevalent (Muslim) beliefs in a foreign city seems reasonable. A few questions:
1. Emiratis — and presumably conservative Muslims — only account for roughly 20% of the UAE’s population (the remainder being largely resident ex-pats). That’s about 1.6 million in a country of 8 million people. Is it fair to expect the majority of UAE citizens to adhere to a belief upheld by a select minority? At what point would a “modesty” law infringe on the rights of non-Muslim citizens’ and residents’ rights to freedom of expression?
2. How much modesty is enough? Muslims are in no way homogenous. Different sects of Islam will have different versions of what is and isn’t appropriate. If the UAE passes a law requiring all garments to have sleeves and all shorts/skirts to be below the knee, what’s to stop a law requiring women to wear the hijab, or men the dishdasha, even if they’re not Muslim?
3. Would a strict dress code scare away tourists? As the UAE’s tourism industry expands, the last thing government officials would want to do is put off foreigners. With average summer temperatures hitting 104 degrees F, I’m not sure all tourists — especially those unused to a hot, arid climate — would be thrilled about wearing more, as opposed to less clothing (while still being tasteful, of course).
4. Politics. Always tricky territory. According to Watson’s article, there are two prevailing voices in the modesty debate. Pro-democracy activists warn the government against favoring conservative Muslim views in an attempt to prevent them from becoming an overwhelming political voice. At the same time, Islamists are gaining ground in countries immediately surrounding the UAE. Might it be wise to push conservative policies to gain bargaining power with regional allies? What’s a country to do?
What do you think? Where would you draw the line?
Photo Credit: Sodacan