Each time I travel to the United Arab Emirates it makes me think differently about dress codes, the oppression of women and the objectification of the human body.
Before I first travelled to the Middle East, I was firmly in the camp of viewing the burqa and niqab as extremely oppressive. Outward symbols of how Islam regarded women as lower than men, with faces and bodies to be controlled and only viewed by the men who own them.
I had travelled to Muslim countries before but none in the Middle East, where a longer, loose style of traditional dress is the norm. So when I first visited Dubai and was advised on the dress code for the shopping malls, knees and shoulders covered, I was struck by one key factor: the dress code, whose objective is to enforce modesty, applies equally to both men and women.
In fact, against a cultural backdrop where men also wear long ‘dresses’, the burqa suddenly seems far less sexist and the focus turns to modesty, for both sexes, to discourage objectification of both the male and female form and to dress for the climate. So, the burqa and hijab, when worn alongside the dish dash and keffiyeh looks completely normal. I even saw a guy fishing at the edge of the Dubai marina wearing a niqab style face covering to protect from the heat.
There was more food for thought at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, where again there is a very strict dress code. It was apparent that some women did not feel comfortable having their hair completely covered, which is a strict requirement. Yes it’s uncomfortably hot which made some women only cover half of the head, but some women were blatantly trying to style a ‘look’ -messy strands to frame their face, or letting their hair fall to the side of their neck in front of their shoulder. A few were even taking Insta-ready pseudo-pensive pouty selfies. Why? Have we western women really been so conditioned to look like Disney princesses all the time? Why do we feel that we have to physically be on show, looking our best, at all times? Why, when even visiting a place considered so sacrosanct, can us women not be 'off-duty' for a mere half an hour.
Of course modest dress in a place of worship is not unique to Islam. You will find dress codes at the Temple of The Emerald Buddha in Thailand, and at the Vatican in Rome. And if you are really offended by the specific dress code for a place of worship then why go there? I'm all for choice but it seems as though western women don't really have a choice either. We actually seem unable to not try to look beautiful 24/7. Let’s ask ourselves - when did we last go out without any makeup on, or without a pair of heels on? We argue choice and liberty but actually seem to have fallen into western ‘standards’ for women (perpetuated by both men and women) that demand hair extensions, false eyelashes, skinny jeans and stilettos - no other option. I'm exaggerating for effect but hopefully you see my point.
I'm no religious scholar so I refuse to be drawn on the treatment of women more generally by Islam or any other religious belief system. However, I do think that the West has completely missed the point of the Muslim way of dress, which we typically see displayed on women. I actually think that the modesty that it encourages - for both sexes - is no bad thing, has its place and could teach us a few lessons about valuing people for more than the way they look.