Are these shorts too short? Foreigners told to cover up in UAE

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Story highlights

Asma Al Muhairi started campaign after seeing woman in skimpy shorts in a Dubai shopping mall

Shopping malls in the United Arab Emirates expect visitors to cover their knees and shoulders

Brochures should be given out at airports explaining the need for modest dress, say campaigners

Abu Dhabi CNN  — 

At 23, Asma Al Muhairi has never considered herself a social activist. But a shopping trip to a Dubai mall left her so irate that she started a campaign against revealing clothing and has sparked a major debate in the United Arab Emirates.

Al Muhairi’s campaign to persuade expats and tourists to dress more modestly began after she and her friend Hanan Al Rayes saw a young woman in shorts that they considered left little to the imagination.

She said many people in Dubai Mall were looking at the woman, but no one did anything, so she approached security guards and threatened to call the police.

“We never saw this 10 years ago or even five years ago,” said Al Muhairi, who began her campaign through a hashtag on Twitter – #UAEdresscode.

“I’m only 23 but when I was young it was different,” she added. “I feel sad for the new generations. My nieces when they go to the mall they think it’s fine to look at people dressed like this.

“It makes me sad. In our days people always knew it was wrong. It is in our culture and our religion.”

While wearing skimpy clothing is not illegal in the United Arab Emirates, shopping malls have policies that state knees and shoulders should be covered.

On returning from the mall, Al Muhairi discussed the issue with Al Rayes and wrote a message on Twitter, saying “till when will we keep seeing people going against our rules and showing indecent dresses?”

Initially, Al Muhairi and Al Rayes had no intention of starting a campaign, just sharing their views with friends. However, the discussion grew as the issue touched a nerve with many.

“I never though that in 10 days I would become a social activist,” said Al Muhairi.

The campaign has started a debate on how closely foreigners should follow local customs while in the United Arab Emirates, and just what standards of dress are acceptable.

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Local newspapers, personalities and those prominent on social media have weighed in on the debate, calling on the country’s authorities and shopping-mall managers to enforce a conservative dress code.

Some have suggested that tourists arriving at airports should be given a brochure explaining local customs and standards of dress.

The British Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Dominic Jermey, had already made his own plea to visitors before Al Muhairi and Al Rayes began their campaign.

In an interview with the Ministry of Interior’s 999 Magazine in March, Jermey said: “The vast majority of expats living here dress entirely appropriately, and I think that most British people who live here or visit here get it absolutely right. Some who get it slightly wrong tend to get very bad sunburn!

“But seriously, I think it is really important for expats and tourists to understand the norms of the society they are in, so that is why we, through our embassies in Dubai and Abu Dhabi work very closely with tour operators, local schools, and the airlines, in particular Emirates and Etihad, to run a campaign called Know Before You Go.”

The issue goes to the heart of what can at times be a clash of cultures. More than 80% of the United Arab Emirates population is expatriate, according to Visit Abu Dhabi, and much of the country’s wealth is built on its foreign workers. The country prides itself on its welcoming attitude to foreigners.

Most Emirati women wear abayas – long robes that cover the whole body – but the expectation for foreigners is more relaxed. The government advises visitors to respect local culture by avoiding “excessively revealing” clothes in public places.

Although most of the attention has been focused on women, Al Mulhairi also has her sights on men who wear shorts, go bare-chested or wear clothes that are too tight fitting.

She said: “We should start in the malls distributing booklets with instructions. We need to create awareness and let people know about this campaign and that people here are upset about this issue.

“We should give a deadline – from a certain date, everyone will know that if they wear certain kind of dress, the mall won’t let them in, or maybe give them a fine. Someone suggested giving them something to cover themselves.”

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Many foreigners, as well as Emiratis, agree that more needs to be done to educate visitors on what is acceptable.

Trudy Klein, a 30-year-old South African who has lived in Dubai for six years, said: “We are living in a Middle Eastern country. There are things we need to respect about the country and the religion. We are guests.

“I’ve seen girls that really push the limits. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to educate some women to show respect.”

Khadija Sali, a journalist from the Philippines, said: “We have to respect the culture and respect ourselves as well. Don’t wear anything too short or too tight, it’s common sense.” However, she said she would draw the line at shopping mall security guards giving people extra clothes to cover themselves.

“The campaign is good but they shouldn’t go over the top,” said Sali. “There are more important issues out there that they could do campaigns about – sick people, children dying, hungry people, not what people wear in the malls.”

Follow the Inside the Middle East team on Twitter: Presenter Rima Maktabi: @rimamaktabi, producer Jon Jensen: @jonjensen, producer Schams Elwazer @SchamsCNN and writer Catriona Davies @catrionadavies