View of part of the Fujairah Corniche and the Hajar Mountains in the Background

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Bodies, Bikinis and Breast Feeding in the UAE

The recent ‘Sex on the Beach’ case has made many tourists jittery about what behavior is acceptable and what will be punished severely in the UAE.

Prior to this well-publicized case one of the most frequently Googled questions by prospective tourists is ‘What do I wear in the UAE?’

Many articles have been written about the dearth of information regarding UAE dress codes and the conflicting standards that have provoked much international discussion and confusion.

Beach Wear, Bikinis and Bodies
There has been universal condemnation of the practice of copulation on the corniche but what is the dress code for bathing or walking beside the sea? Generally on streets, in shopping malls and in public places modesty is the watchword for women—no plunging necklines or slit skirts. Interestingly sleeveless shirts or tank tops are a No, No and if women expose their shoulders and ankles they are likely to hear passersby mutter the word, ‘Haraam’ (Arabic: حرام‎)—forbidden.

At public beaches the dress code is more relaxed and at hotel beaches (private) and around the hotel swimming pools, bikinis are acceptable. Some women go topless sunbathing on private hotel beaches in the UAE as is often the custom on the beaches of the Mediterranean. It is difficult to know if such an act would be punished if police were on patrol or whether the private nature of a hotel beach somehow makes the area an international enclave.

It would be good to follow the recent example of Indonesian lawmakers who have clarified the law for their people and tourists in deciding that bikinis are acceptable attire for beaches in the mainly Muslim country.

Sharjah, Saris and Staring
Another complicating factor is the matter of regional differences. For instance the emirate of Sharjah has stricter laws controlling dress.

The Decency Law of Sharjah throws the book at women of any nationality wearing “indecent dresses that expose the stomach and back, short clothing above the knees, and tight, transparent clothing that describes the body.”

This law includes a proper wearing of the sari which must cover the whole body, stomach and back.

More on the special strictness of Sharjah can be found at this link along with a discussion about staring. The question, ‘What do I wear in the UAE?’ is not just about what you can get away with but what style of dress is likely to attract the stares of some UAE residents.

Consistency and Clothes of Celebrities
One of the increasing gripes voiced in the Emirates is the inconsistency of applying the law especially in apprehending people who are breaking the local dress code. This is particularly apparent in the increasing number of celebrities that are courted by the UAE to provide entertainment and have their name associated with a new housing estate.

A case in point is the forthcoming visit of Christina Aguilera to Abu Dhabi. The newspaper and television advertisements of Aguilera on stage depict the entertainer wearing clothes and exposing flesh in ways that are clearly haraam. Is there a different law for celebrities who pull in crowds and who generate huge international marketing revenues for the UAE? If the UAE is really serious about dress that is “inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political and moral values of the United Arab Emirates” [this is the message Internet users get when they click on a blocked site] then should not this style of advertising be banned? Should not entertainers like Aguilera and their promoters be apprehended with even greater severity if they dress contrary to the UAE code, as they are firmly in the public eye, they are often performing from the iconic Emirates Palace and they are influential role models?

Another recently publicized example is the actor, Hilary Swank, who has been invited to promote the UAE property company Aquitainia, and will be in the country to help launch the US$1.49 billion project on The World Islands. A news article about Swank’s upcoming visit is posted on a Shariah Finance Watch site and is asking about the appropriateness of some of her costumes for wearing in the UAE.

Breast Feeding in the UAE
The confusion of prospective tourists and the thirst for information is evident in this question posted on a travel section of Times Online:

“We are hoping to travel to Dubai for a few days in January with our baby son, and although my husband and I have been to the Middle East before, we have a potential problem on this occasion.”

“Our son will be six months old by then, and I will still be breast-feeding him. I would obviously be as subtle as possible, but would even the idea of breast-feeding be offensive, in a café or restaurant, for example? We would not like to cause any offence.”

The Times Travel Expert gives this helpful reply:

“Dubai is less conservative than other parts of the UAE, but the advice from Dubai Tourism is that although there is no formal rule against breast-feeding in public, Muslim culture favours modesty and unnecessary exposure may cause offence.”

“Restaurants commonly have screened-off tables or compartments, typically for Arab women who do not wish to remove their veils publicly to eat, while hotels and shopping malls have mother and baby rooms. If you use those, you won't need to worry.”

Amidst the confusion that surrounds many of the issues about bodily exposure and dress there is a desperate need for consistency, clarity and comprehensive information. These are pressing challenges for the UAE government.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Range of style on and off the beach.