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
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 willingly expose
the spare tires around our midriffs and advertise our beautiful legs with short, short skirts.
Does exposing our body parts titillate men?
In the West, because men have become accustomed to it,
seeing bare 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 feel that, at the most
fundamental level, covering up shows sensitivity to their
Is covering up indicative of men attempting to control
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, until recently, their
faces. Yes, it could be argued that all of this is symbolic
of the historical practice 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 82, and quite plump) is now 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 signalling respect for the
culture in which you find yourself. If you choose to wear
tight or short shorts or a revealing 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. 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