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One of Us, the Qatari campaign to educate expats about proper dress codes

Today, I read an article on Al Jazeera about a new “cover-up campaign” that has been started by some local women in Qatar and the UAE. The concept is simple enough: They are asking expatriate men and women to dress more modestly, out of respect for local Arab and Islamic culture. In my opinion, these ladies should be lauded, because they are willing to take up a task that local governments seem to quite lax in upholding (in the UAE, it is up to the discretion of each emirate, regarding their interpretation and enforcement of dress codes). It is not a law, rather, something more akin to a public service announcement, reminding people to be mindful of the local culture and religion. Of course, it has its critics and opponents, and it is the views and opinions of those people which I wish to address in this article, inshAllah.

Opponents are trying to compare this initiative to the anti-veil laws that are spreading across Europe (everyone speaks of France, forgetting that Germany also has their own form of law, as do other countries, either already in the books, or in the works as we speak). Quite simply, there is no comparison, because a policy for encouraging modesty is in no way similar to a law that makes religious attire illegal.

Asking that a woman cover her bosom is not telling her that she is not allowed to openly practice her religion, for the lone fact that no (legitimate) religion in the world tells a woman to expose her flesh. The argument that it’s “her body and her right” also holds no ground, because there are public decency laws the world over, which strictly prohibit men and women from fully baring their bodies. No one ever says that this is imposing strict religious laws. People understand that it is all about what is decent and appropriate. The same goes for movie ratings.

I am sure that all would agree that what is shown in an NC-17 movie should not be aired on regular television, where children could see it (that it, unless you happen to live in France or Germany, where, apparently, such things are shown on TV). In America, we would be aghast to see such a display of human flesh on primetime, network television. And when we hear about it being blatantly displayed in other countries, it sickens us. And yet again, it never occurs to the average American that an abhorrence of obscenity on TV could ever be interpreted as a religious imposition. Rather, people see it as a societal or cultural standard.

So then, why is the covering of a woman’s body seen as a religious imposition? Is it not the same as the above example?

Western society was not always so given to exposing the body. Before World War II, it was not regarded as something that a “good girl” did in “polite company.” When a woman went out for dinner and dancing, she typically wore a floor-length gown. Sure, sleeves may have been short, and the neckline may have been lower than what a woman would have worn around the turn of the 20th century, but it was far from revealing (cleavage was still very much concealed, and ladies were still fond of wearing long gloves). The so-called “Roaring 20s” did see a dip in the neckline, and a sharp rise in the hemline, but for the most part, this form of fashion was still not considered appropriate for certain social situations (work, worship, family gatherings, etc). The “flapper girls,” as they were called, typically wore such flaunting attire to dance clubs, gin parlors, and the likes.

Nowadays, though, Western women wish to “exercise their right” to wear whatever they please, whenever they please, and wherever they please. We must contend with more than just plunging necklines and exposed knees when we go out to the park, the mall, or even the grocery store. “Low-rise” jeans, designed to expose pierced belly-buttons, and tattooed lower backs are the norm, as are tank-tops, and insanely small shorts (which look like they are smaller than what my nearly 3 yr old daughter would fit into!) are the fashion craze. We see women and young girls of all shapes and sizes wearing such inappropriate clothing, and we are told that this is “western freedom,” and that this is what the women’s liberation movement was all about (somehow, though, I highly doubt that, since they wanted respect, and not gawking).

Muslim women living in the West know that they must contend with this, and they also know that they cannot say anything against it, for doing so would mean that they are attempting to impose their religion on others. Forgotten is the fact that just 30 years ago, a western woman could have very well walked up to a half-naked girl or woman and tell her that she needed to put on something, and that would have been perfectly fine. She may have been deemed “old fashioned,” or “not with it,” but certainly, no one would have thought she was a religious zealot (unless, of course, she added the words, “you will go to hell for dressing like that”). A Muslim woman is criticized for being too-overtly religious, and being fanatical if she dares to question this new mode of being undressed while dressed.

Expats who oppose the initiative are playing the religion card, and claiming that it is yet again proof positive that Arabs and Muslims are against all who are neither Arab or Muslim. This is an argument that we hear a lot from the expat community living in the Gulf. Almost every law that is passed, is viewed as somehow being a threat to their “way of life,” even if in no way does it alter or diminish their rights. In the more “liberal” countries of Qatar and the UAE, non-Muslim expats are even allowed to purchase alcohol, and plenty of restaurants cater to their insatiable need to consume pork at just about every meal. Compared to the life of a religious Muslim living in the West, and there is little evidence of how, exactly, a non-Muslim living in the Middle East is truly “suffering” in any way.

Muslims in the West do not have the same rights as non-Muslims in the Middle East. When Muslims want to build a masjid or community center, people rally to stop it. In comparison, one can see grand-looking churches in the UAE, Qatar, Egypt, even Pakistan (where less than 1% of the population is non-Muslim, which means that it is divided up among Hindu, Zoroastrian, and Christian). No protests were held, nor were any attempts made to block construction. Non-Muslims are allowed to freely and openly practice their religion, with only one stipulation: that they not try to proselytize to the Muslims. I feel that is only fair. Here in the West, Muslims must deal with people trying to tell them to change their religion, if they wish to be “saved,” etc. I, personally, had a woman yell at me, because of my religion. And I have seen protestors standing outside masjids.

It has been made very clear to the average Muslim living in the West that if they wish to be fully accepted, they must reject all of that which makes them identified as being Muslim. A woman must lose the headscarf. A man must shave his beard. Prayer five times a day is treated by an employer as being a hardship (ignoring the fact that in any given work shift, there may only be one of two prayer times that fall within it), and is thus strongly discouraged (another personal experience was that I had to pray in a storage room, and deal with people walking in and out the entire time, sometimes, walking over me). And if they want to “get ahead,” or “network,” or just generally make friends at work, they are told that she should go out to a bar with everyone after work (again, a personal experience, in which, I staunchly refused to participate).

The Muslim who does not give in to those things in the typical work or social environment is often made to feel isolated and mistrusted. I cannot see where there would be any possible parallels in Muslim society. What could there be to get in the way of a non-Muslim living in a Muslim country from feeling accepted? Other than their own perceptions of being victimized, I mean.

The short of the long of it is this: Asking men and women (the initiative is aimed at both genders, actually) to refrain from wearing inappropriate clothing in public settings is not discriminatory, or is it an attempt to make non-Muslims (or, for that matter, even Muslims who wish to dress in a revealing way) feel unwelcome, or that they are unwanted. It is really nothing more than asking them to respect Arab and Muslim culture.

And honestly, what’s wrong with that?