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Dubai’s competing halves

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Key to attracting tourists and business is Dubai’s cultivated perception as ‘westernised’, compared to other Middle Eastern cities. Yet this must sit alongside Emirati values

Sacha Robehmed
7 June 2012

Short with distinctive yellow, mint and dark green stripes, it was my favourite skirt in my mid-teens. I can vividly picture it even today. In retrospect, the garment was as ghastly as it sounds, but at the time I adored it. Flitting somewhere around my thighs, I was never allowed to wear it anywhere but to friends’ houses, despite my best efforts. And most definitely not to a mall.  

Dubai life revolves around the many malls, even more so in the summer heat. People go to the movies, buy groceries at French hypermarkets, run errands, eat in restaurants, and play in gaming zones. Some are even there to shop. So it is no surprise that the mall is the stage for Dubai’s latest public debate on the sartorial decisions of those strutting along its polished, marble promenades.

@UAEDressCode is a Twitter campaign started by two Emirati women. Disgusted by the the inability of mall management to take issue with ‘inappropriate’ clothing, they decided to raise awareness themselves. They now have over a thousand followers. Everyone in the UAE seems compelled to share their thoughts, with Twitter, blogs, and Letters to the Editor pages becoming soapboxes for opinions on #UAEDressCode.

Public discussion on dress codes is not something new. In September 2011, a similar mall clothing debate was initiated by ‘a group of Arab women’ on an expat forum.  Two years ago, a tourist stripped to her bikini in the middle of Dubai Mall, when confronted over her ‘revealing’ clothing .  And in 2008, signs were placed on beaches warning against indecent sunbathing . For several years now, malls have displayed signs confirming expected sartorial behaviour. The image of a short-sleeved t-shirt is accompanied by the request, “please wear respectful clothing”, defined in smaller print as covering knees and shoulders. This applies to both men and women, but is not enforced by powerless security personnel.  

Hot weather is often cited as an excuse for wearing beach clothing in malls, even though air conditioning means indoor spaces often require a light sweater. Most agree that local customs should be respected but others see the code as an infringement on personal freedoms, with a few even drawing comparisons with the French laws banning the niqab. However the organisers of the campaign stress they are trying to raise awareness, not change laws. Many expats seem equally disgusted by clothing worn in malls—ranging from tight exercise gear to beachwear, revealed shoulders and cleavage, too-short skirts and shorts, and flashes of underwear. The unacknowledged association is that scantily clad women equal prostitution, moral turpitude, and the degradation of cultural norms.

But tension over dress—and by extension revealed skin alluding to nudity and sex—is part of a much larger debate on public morality. From banning the TV show Game of Thrones to blocking an innuendo-filled, tongue-in-cheek (and now extinct) blog on dating in Dubai, the permissibility of sex and nudity is contested. Scantily clad mall-goers are the beginning of a perceived degradation of local culture and identity that ends near the ‘public indecency’ scandals—such as the British couple who had sex on a beach in 2008, and a couple accused of having sex in a taxi just a few weeks ago.

This spectrum represents Dubai wrestling with its competing halves. Key to attracting tourists and business is Dubai’s cultivated perception as ‘westernised’ and ‘modern’, compared to other Middle Eastern cities. Yet this must sit alongside Emirati values and traditional cultural norms. Filling the space in between is public discourse such as the @UAEDressCode campaign.  Dubai is not about to ask women to leave malls for wearing nail polish , or introduce decency laws as in the neighbouring emirate of Sharjah. But through social debates on dress codes, it seeks to negotiate a new kind of modernity— one which cannot be reduced to either the burqa or the bikini.

This article is part of Arab Awakening's This week's window into the Middle East.

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