Do dress codes exhibit double standards?

Campaigns to encourage tourists and expatriates to wear the “appropriate” clothing have been tried and tested in both Dubai and Doha

Yara al-Wazir

Published: Updated:

Earlier this week, an Emirati woman lashed out at a Dubai mall against Egyptian actress Abeer Sabry for what she considered to be “indecent clothing” worn by the Sabry. The encounter was filmed and the video went viral on social media.

With summer on its way, this raises the debate over whether or not there is an element of hypocrisy in the expectation that Western cultures accept and respect Muslim attire.

This is an isolated incident, but these thoughts run often

Having lived in Dubai, I can say that a member of the public lashing out against a tourist for what they are wearing is an isolated incident that I have never personally witnessed.

However, glares and whispers criticizing clothes is something that I have often heard. So, although this isn’t a common sight in Dubai, it may be a common thought. Which begs the question – do we employ double standards when it comes to attire? If the Arab community expect tourists, whether they are Arab or not, to comply with what is deemed ‘culturally modest’, can the same be said when Arabs are in Europe and choose to wear the hijab, abayas, or other forms of Islamic clothing that some Europeans can find threatening? After all, perhaps this woman lashed out at Abeer Sabry because she felt that her culture was threatened in some way.

Campaigns to encourage tourists and expatriates to wear the “appropriate” clothing have been tried and tested in both Dubai and Doha

Yara al-Wazir

Just last week, a high school student in France was banned from class for wearing a long skirt and a headscarf – perhaps she looked too modest and that too was deemed threatening by her peers.

Maybe, however an important point must be made: personal freedom comes in more than one form, including expression of self and religious freedoms.

A law banning the veil, as practiced legally in France, is an infringement on the right of religious expression. I believe this is outright and defined. However, the line where personal freedom begins to conflict with cultural tendencies is blurred, and that’s why it may seem that this double standard exists.

Campaigns to encourage tourists and expatriates to wear the “appropriate” clothing have been tried and tested in both Dubai and Doha.

After a citizen-ran campaign was tested in Doha with the slogan “You are one of us” back in 2013, the community lashed out at the inequality it faces in the city, and therefore its rejection of the statement. The campaign listened to the public and re-engineered its statement to “Reflect Respect” in 2014, and was more recently revived with the slogan “You Matter.”

By re-engineering the statement, campaign organisers are addressing both expatriates and citizens.

Ultimately, the presence of the campaigns is a testament that the region is attempting to grab on to its roots amid its fast paced globalization. But do they really work? Perhaps stickers or a few posters at the mall are not enough.

Legal action threatened, what we need is communication

There has been talk of legal action against the Emirati woman, mostly for filming the ordeal, which went viral on social media. Interestingly, this is considered to be an infringement on the personal rights of Sabry as she did not give her consent to release the video.

There is no doubt that ahead of the busy summer tourist season, this situation and viral video may affect the mentality of those arriving in Dubai on holiday. It is right for the government to show intent to prosecute someone who is showing the city in a negative light, especially considering government expenditure to encourage tourism.

What this case, and indeed what the region needs is an improved line of communication – one that explains what cultural requirements exist, and why they exist. Perhaps what is actually needed is cultural awareness before tourists arrive; more information on the topic can be provided at airports while they’re waiting to get their passport stamped, or guidance e-mails when they book their flights.

Most importantly, “reflecting respect” goes both ways – one form is in respecting the culture by dressing appropriately, the other, and perhaps the more important method to not be labeled a hypocrite, is to communicate with respect when one feels their culture is not being respected.

Yara al Wazir is a humanitarian activist. She is the founder of The Green Initiative ME and a developing partner of Sharek Stories. She can be followed and contacted on twitter @YaraWazir

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.