December/January 2009: The Question of Dress

The Question of Dress

When relocating to one of the countries of the Middle East, women ask many questions about how to dress in public. Some are afraid they will be reprimanded by the authorities if they show too much hair or too much skin. Some are resentful of what they see as restrictions on their personal self- expression. Others are happy that they can wear whatever they want under an abaya.

There are many perspectives from which to examine the issue of how to dress when visiting or living in a country that expects women to dress in a way which does not display their female beauty:

Is it control of women by religious laws?

Although covering the female body is not one of the five pillars of Islam, it is practiced (with variations) in most of the countries in which Islam is the dominant religion, and is widely associated with Islam. However, until very recently, women of all ages were expected to dress modestly in the countries of the Far East and of Eastern Europe. I would argue that it is we women in the west, who are the aberrations. Controlled by the fashion religion, we expose the spare tires around our midriffs, accentuate our wide bottoms with skin-tight jeans and so on and so on.

Does exposing our body parts titillate men?

In the West, because men have become accustomed to it, seeing bare, long, beautiful legs (or not) below short-short skirts no longer draw huge attention. But the countries in the Arabian Peninsula (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar) employ large numbers of men (millions, actually) from the Third World for jobs in construction and the service industry. Pretty well all of these men are on single-status contracts, and they see their wives (who cannot accompany them) perhaps once or twice a year, if lucky. So picture this: not only do most of these men come from traditions which mandate the covering up of the provocative areas of the female body, they haven't been with their wives for many months. I felt that, at the most fundamental level, covering up shows sensitivity to their emotional situation.

Is covering up indicative of men attempting to control women?

Some men do not want other men to see their wives' beauty. In some countries of Eastern Europe, young women cover their hair immediately after they become married. In the Jewish Orthodox tradition, married women shave their heads. In Saudi Arabia, women cover their bodies and hair and usually faces. Yes, it could be argued that all of this is symbolic of, until recently, the traditional practice, throughout the world, of keeping women economically and emotionally dependent upon men.

But covering your body can be liberating…

Unless you enjoy doing so, it frees you from worrying about the flat stomach, the latest five-inch heels, whether you should start wearing skirts again. More significantly, you can be selective to whom you show your body. You can choose. Bridget Bardot, the French extraordinarily beautiful, 1970s sex kitten, was recently quoted as saying that in her youth she gave her beauty to men, but now she gives her wisdom and experience to things that really matter, animals. Bardot (at age 74, and quite plump) is an animal rights activist.

There are many, sometimes controversial, implications of how women are expected to dress or choose to dress. But dressing according to the local traditions, even if it is physically uncomfortable or violates your sense of individualism or freedom, is fundamentally about signaling respect for the culture in which you find yourself. If you choose to wear tight or short shorts or a tank top in Dubai, or Doha, or even Istanbul or Bombay, you will not be breaking laws or religious taboos. No one is going to haul you away. (You may be asked to leave the place, e.g., mall, into which you just walked.) But the people don't like it. Some even feel offended.

Finally, if you dress in a manner which is in keeping with the local customs, it says a great deal about you: that you are sensitive to the feelings of others and that you are open to new experiences and to inviting new people into your life.

Helen Ziegler

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