Dress code: The long and short of it

Minis, midis or maxis? With no legal clarity, who decides what's considered respectful attire?

  • Maria Hilton, Sharon Alvares, Venera Biktimerova
    (From Left) Maria Hilton, Sharon Alvares, Venera BiktimerovaImage Credit: Francois Nel and Pankaj Sharma, Gulf News
  • Maria Hilton, Sharon Alvares, Venera Biktimerova
    Mariam Yasin, left, and Abeer Ayash believe in dressing venue-appropriateImage Credit: Xpress/ Pankaj Sharma
  • Maria Hilton, Sharon Alvares, Venera Biktimerova
    Signboards at malls have little impact on shoppers as there's no clarity on the dress codeImage Credit: Xpress / Pankaj Sharma

Dubai : When Maria Hilton, 18, flew to Dubai from Canada she thought she'd have a fair bit of covering up to do.

Being an Arab city, the laws would be strict here, she assumed.

Three weeks into her holiday, Hilton is shopping at the Mall of the Emirates. In blatant disregard of the mall's dress code policy, she's wearing a short striking leopard-print jumpsuit with spaghetti straps.

And she's not alone.

Signboards urging women to "please wear respectful clothing" are conveniently overlooked by many others too as are similar messages flashed on LCD screens.

Unlike Sharjah, with its stringent laws about what not to wear, Dubai is lenient. Unless one were to walk around in their underclothes or less, there would be no arrests or fines. Laws about the dress code are vague.

As a result malls tread a fine line on what's considered ‘appropriate'. Interpretations vary.

Interpretations vary

According to a Mall of the Emirates spokesperson, respectful clothing amounts to knees and shoulders being covered.

Sabina Khandwani, Head of PR and Marketing, BurJuman, says: "We can't specify what respectful is, since Dubai doesn't have any laws on this."

The natural assumption, she says, would be for people to cover up and not wear anything transparent. "The word ‘respectable' is up for debate. The idea is to make women understand that they shouldn't offend the sensibilities of shoppers around them. This is after all an Islamic environment."

"When I first planned a holiday in Dubai, I reckoned I'd have to dress differently," says Hilton. "I landed here with a bagful of trousers, jeans and modest T-shirts. A couple of days into the trip, I went to Dubai Mall. Looking at the women in minis and shorts prompted me to dress the way I would back home in Calgary."

Dressed to kill, Hilton attracts instant attention. "I'm slightly uncomfortable with the way some Arab women look at me, but I figure that as long as I'm not breaking any laws, no one can say anything to me."

She is probably right. "As a mall, we can't tell women not to wear shorts. But shorts and skirts have lengths and fits that vary… how do we draw the line, and where?" says Khandwani.

Last year several teenagers were detained in Ras Al Khaimah for indecent exposure and, more recently, a European shopper in BurJuman was requested to cover up her peek-a-boo outfit with a shawl.

Sharon Alvares, a Dubai-based PR manager said: "If security had to approach me at a mall and ask me to cover up, I'd probably do so."

On weekends and after-work hours, Alvares wears shorts and skirts. "I am comfortable in them and I'm not breaking any laws or hurting anyone's sensibilities."

"I can't believe certain malls are flashing signs asking women to cover their knees and shoulders. With temperatures nearing 50 degrees, it's too hot to wear too much," says the 26-year-old.

Has the leggy brunette ever been asked to tone down her style? "At nightclubs people pass remarks sometimes, but nothing too intruding," says Alvares.

"What I find intriguing is that along with male attention, I also generate a lot of negative female attention. That makes me very uncomfortable."

Would that persuade her to wear trousers instead? "Not really. Why should I cover up for their sake? I am not violating any law."

Such attitudes certainly don't go down well with everyone. Saima Jaffar, a Pakistani mother of two, says she's often embarrassed when she sees what some women wear. "I can only imagine what is going through the minds of all the men in the mall. Or worse, the effect it has on children. I would hate for my children to think that semi-nude is the norm."

Mariam Yasin, an American-Palestinian residing in Dubai, agrees with the logic behind covering up. "In the US it may be acceptable to go to the mall in a bikini and a revealing cover-up. But Dubai is more conservative and we should respect the cultural values here."

Holistic practitioner Yasin believes in dressing venue-appropriate.

"If I'm going to a party or the beach then the circumstances are different. At a mall, I'll wear a dress, but I'll make sure that it doesn't offend anyone."

Venera Biktimerova, a 20-year-old tourist from Russia, who is considering making Dubai her home, is not ready to compromise. "I've always known this is an Arab country and women are supposed to cover up. But I'm not afraid. The law doesn't ask all women to wear long dresses. I'll wear exactly what I want to wear. No one has the right to ask me to change the way I dress," she says.

Not even mall rules? "The malls say one should be dressed respectfully. For me, what I'm wearing is respectful. I'd say the definition of respectable clothing is clothes that fit you well and make you look attractive. And short skirts and dresses make me look attractive. You'd never catch me in a pair of trousers or jeans. I'll leave those for the other women."

No legal clarity

With no legal clarity on a dress code, the debate over respectable attire rages on. "Legally, we can't walk up to a woman in the mall and tell her that her shorts are too short. When there is no legal restriction on attire, all we can do is put across recommendations," says Khandwani.

So why then do malls sell hot pants, micro minis, tube tops…?

"We sell underwear too," she says. "But we don't expect people to wear nothing over it. It's the same deal with everything else. Buy a revealing top, but pair it with a wrap. Buy micro-minis and wear them with leggings."

"The number of women I see exposing themselves is astounding," says Jordanian Rasha Habib. "Why can't people understand that this is an Arab country? In which country would it be considered decent for a woman to flash her assets in front of other women's husbands, fathers and children? When I see women who shame our gender, I often go to security and complain. Sometimes the women understand and leave the mall. Other times they fight back."

Taking the middle ground is Lebanese expat Abeer Ayash. "As long as my clothes show my personality, without making me feel over- or under-exposed, I'd be balanced out and, therefore, feel beautiful and classy and that's the image I will subconsciously project," she says.

"I've seen women covered from head to toe and yet they attract more attention than a girl in a dress that ends well above her knees."

According to Khandwani, the majority of people who violate the dress code in the mall tend to be Russians and British. "Occasionally, we have problems with the Spanish, and certainly with the South Americans, but other than that, it's hard to generalise."

Interestingly, the French, Germans and Italians rank amongst the most decently dressed Europeans in the mall, according to her.


  • Fay

    Aug 1, 2010 10:28

    Interesting article, but frankly I’m quite appalled by this statement: “I’ll wear exactly what I want to wear. No one has the right to ask me to change the way I dress.”No one’s asking you to change your dress style. What we’re asking, or more so telling, is at least accessorise it with a cover.I have seen a lot of offensive dresses at malls, short skirts, transparent skirts, clothes on without underwear, etc. I know there is no law stating what one can or cannot wear, but the minute you set foot into a country other than your own, you need to study the cultural sensitivities and know what’s right and what’s wrong.

  • hajera

    Jul 31, 2010 10:53

    Sensible women should understand what dress is ok and not ok for a normal lady.

  • Farah

    Jul 31, 2010 9:01

    It's comforting to read that even the people from Western societies think lowly of the revealing dresses worn here in the UAE in public. If they blame the high temperatures, then that is a lame excuse. Every place here is air conditioned. The malls, the cars, the houses, name anything, it['s air conditioned. If one is out in the sun uncovered, that can be harmful in this sweltering heat. So covering up moderately can be favorable in the weather here.I humbly request the authorities to acknowledge the opinions of the common man/woman here and take some steps so that this dress issue is compatible with all. Our streets & malls are not a place of exposing. If someone wants to do that, they are free to do that in their own circle, privately.No religion preaches nudity or obscenity, then why do women dress like that and degrade all the women of the world. When we talk about women's rights & freedom, it should not be that we start throwing our clothes off. But we should stand tall & high & dignified wherever we go in the world.

  • Merina

    Jul 31, 2010 6:20

    I have seen the most offensive and indecent attire while living in Dubai. It's fun to dress up and there are times and places for flaunting, like in your home!The many of us decent visitors in this country with morals often whinge and whinge, but what is done about it.I feel that law should take charge and deploy female police at malls to solve and end this problem. Enforce laws with fines, you speed, camera catches you and you pay! Same measures should be applied, Dh2000 for violation any of the dress codes!It sounds drastic but as the saying goes, drastic times calls for drastic measures.This must work.

  • Mathew Litty

    Jul 31, 2010 4:48

    Amina, if you are very jealous that women are wearing such clothes then please do look out for another place as there are a lot of places to hang out. You were saying that this country has a dress code. May I ask what is the dress code? You want every one to wear jeans and walk around in this heat. If the English lady is wearing an abaya she might feel comfortable but that doesn't mean every body has to.

  • Firdous Ahmad Shaikh

    Jul 31, 2010 4:23

    There was this incident in Jumeirah at the Boat show when I visited with some family and relatives. There were two western girls in front of us wearing completely transparent frocks almost skin coloured wherein you could see their black underwear! I mean which sane person would wear these in a public exhibition? The other incident was at the monorail station at Palm jumeirah. There was this girl wearing a netted short dress over a turquoise bikini and smooching and caressing her boyfriend in full view of the public! For God's sake is it that uncomfortable to dress and behave in public. Where is your conscience, morals?

  • Mathew Litty

    Jul 31, 2010 3:38

    Nice to read different views being raised. Seems everyone has got an issue out here. Dear readers, the above report itself states that the law doesnt state as to what is appropriate and inappropriate? Then what are we sitting and passing comments for. Every body is stressing that we need to respect the culture and tradition of the country. You go out to the malls and you will find a lot of women wearing different clothings either open or closed. It's upto them. I wonder what is the harm? I have been residing in Dubai for the past 28 years and I have seen the fashion trends and styles changing. I believe that every body has got different style of dressing, so leave it upto them. You should wear what you feel comfortable in and should not be forced to wear a particular dress. Do not expect everyone to wear abaya and sheila, fully covered and walk around.

  • Ana

    Jul 31, 2010 2:45

    As a Westerner I enjoy wearing miniskirts. However, I think that one should respect and obey the cultural requests of the locals, not only here but in any other country. One of the girls in the article says that she will wear what she wants and no one has the right to ask her to change the way she dresses. Well, I think they do have the right as we are in their country! They are not asking us to wear abayas, just to be a bit modest. I think Dubai locals are aware that the economy is moved by expats thus they are quite tolerant, but knowing they find disrespectful certain things one should try to respect their culture -- again this is their home. If you go clubbing, you will not expect to find a local as they don’t visit places where people drink -- so fair enough, wear your mini skirts there and have fun.

  • Anonymous

    Jul 31, 2010 9:10

    People should understand that Dubai people have opened their city for expats and tourists...one way or another, people should respect each other on how they dress...as long as we are not ofending other people in the way we dress..

  • Jimmy Jacob

    Jul 31, 2010 8:56

    It’s amazing to see women fighting for their rights to wear appropriate attire. I strongly believe that wearing a dress is one’s personal choice, and shouldn’t be forced. But none would dare to do the same in the KSA. Hilton had brought pairs of dresses to the UAE, but when she saw others, back to square one. You are free to go to a pub or disco wearing revealing clothes, no one would mind. But if you are adamant of wearing the same in a mall or public area, it’s sheer arrogance and negligence of Islamic values of this country. Strict rules need to be implemented and such people must be penalised. Just putting up sign boards at malls won’t do any good. It’s not fair to preach about women’s rights when they get roam around half-naked through the streets of Dubai, and the majority of the Muslim women get offended by the same.

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Latest Comment

Interesting article, but frankly I’m quite appalled by this statement: “I’ll wear exactly what I want to wear. No one has the right to ask me to change the way I dress.”No one’s asking you to change your dress style. What we’re asking, or more so telling, is at least accessorise it with a cover.I have seen a lot of offensive dresses at malls, short skirts, transparent skirts, clothes on without underwear, etc. I know there is no law stating what one can or cannot wear, but the minute you set foot into a country other than your own, you need to study the cultural sensitivities and know what’s right and what’s wrong.


1 August 2010 13:08jump to comments