What She Wears: The Dress Code Debate
Individual freedom of expression versus people’s comfort in public spaces. In a multicultural society, deeply rooted in a traditional faith, this is a question not easily answered.
The dress code in Qatar is a perennially hot topic among locals and expatriates alike. Unlike other conservative Islamic countries, dress code in Qatar is not mandated by law and other than a couple of instances of denied entry and rude confrontations, there are no serious consequences for flouting these unwritten rules. Tony Litson, a British expatriate, says, “I feel it is only right that the expatriate community is respectful, and understands local customs and beliefs. I’m not suggesting that expatriate women should start wearing abayas, as you see in Saudi Arabia, however I see no harm in dressing modestly.”
Like Tony, there are many who appreciate the subtlety and discretion that the modest dress code inspires. “It’s a welcome change from the Western cultures I’ve grown up in which tend to focus largely on the physical aspects of the way we live” says Oliver, a New Zealander recently relocated to Qatar.A young Qatari woman asserts that wearing the hijab gives her and others like her a feeling of confidence, security and empowerment, adding “I think that women wearing the traditional clothing look more elegant and beautiful than in other forms of dress.”
But some residents worry that the ambiguous and often arbitrary decisions around what is and is not considered acceptable to wear become a troubling proxy for discrimination on the basis of race, nationality, or socio-economic status.
Aamir, an Indian Muslim brought up in Qatar, acknowledges that “people are definitely treated differently depending on the way they are dressed.” Deeper questions around the objectification of women and gender discrimination also find their way to the surface in these conversations. While such discrimination is not new or unique to Qatar, it is perhaps more evident in the way that life in the country is structured.
From the perspective of democratic societies, if one’s individual freedoms are curtailed, the situation risks becoming repressive. However in an autocratic society, the government is responsible for exercising its power to mandate certain things for the common good. The question then remains: how do you balance individual freedom of expression with people’s comfort in and enjoyment of public spaces?
Emily Landry, an American who has lived in Qatar for four years, feels that the fuss around dress code forms only a small part of a much larger conversation around modernity that is beginning to emerge among the community in Qatar. “I think the dress code issue isn’t black and white at all, and it’s not just about what women are wearing, but it’s an extension of the wider East vs. West, nationals vs. expatriate issues that the country is dealing with,” she says.
Indeed, though some residents judiciously adopt a ‘love it or leave it’ attitude in relation to any opposing voices, there is no denying that spaces for debate about issues that affect citizens and non-citizens alike are definitely starting to open up.
Qatar’s ever-growing majority expatriate population, its rapid internationalisation and its increasing visibility on the world stage means that the country is having to articulate and defend its values and choices more vocally than before. Qatar’s winning bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup has turned the spotlight on the small country, prompting questions about everything from regulations around alcohol consumption and dress code to more serious concerns about human rights and labour laws.But for some, particularly the young, the dress code amounts to much ado about nothing. Asmaa, a young Qatari student, sums it up: “Seriously, everyone just needs to lighten up a bit. There are bigger things to worry about.”