Dress codes come in all different shapes and sizes: some are strict and rigid, backed up by local laws or the rules of an establishment; others are more cultural ‘suggestions’ backed up by the frowns (and likely harassment) of a certain community. Dress codes serve different purposes: some are meant to unify; some are safety measures; and some are purely moral in nature. The latter is the most difficult to explain, yet it also seems to be the most prevalent, particularly in the Middle East.
Egyptian actress Abeer Sabry, 44, got a little more than she bargained for during a pleasure trip to Dubai a few weeks ago when she stopped by the super-trendy Sauce women’s boutique to shop. Accompanied by Tunisian actress Feriel Yousef, Abeer used the changing room. When she wanted to try something else on she decided to step out into the store several times in her underwear to find what she wanted. Her actions apparently angered one local Emirati woman, who verbally assaulted Abeer at the register while another person apparently filmed the whole incident:
“I am an Emirati woman, you are in my country, you don’t speak. I am speaking in my country, and you don’t wear that kind of clothing,” the woman apparently tells Abeer in Arabic, adding “It’s okay in your own country if you want.”
Wallah? “You don’t speak” certainly doesn’t allow for peaceful dialogue. I furthermore had to laugh at the “in your own country” comment: women don’t walk around in their underwear in Egypt either. Her use of a bit of English- “Yes this is a dress code and I have the right;” “The other lady you saw what she was wearing right? You saw it?”-is likely because other patrons of the store were not Arab, but I still thought it odd when she might not know whether or not Ms. Sabry speaks English or not.
The video went viral on social media and prompted several news articles in The National, an Emirati newspaper; now it seems as though the Emirati woman who berated the actresses might face legal charges, as it is illegal to film someone in the UAE without their consent. The woman’s argument, that Ms. Sabry was being indecent and that Emirati morals and rules should be followed by foreigners who visit the nation, reminded me of another notorious discussion: that of the hijab and veil in France. Although France has cited other reasons for banning hijab in schools and face-veils in the street, a less-championed (but much more honest and unanimous) opinion among the French is that Islamic headscarves do not belong in French society; they are not a French custom and infringe on the French customs of community and looking into one’s face when you address someone. Tourists are also to comply with the veil laws when they visit France.
As Abeer Sabry was being berated for stepping out in her undies in the UAE, a 12-year old girl named Sarah (not her real name) recently caused an uproar in her little hometown of Charleville-Mezieres, and greater France, when she was berated for her fashion choice, albeit a different one: her skirt. Sarah was banned from school twice in one month by her head teacher who believed that the length and color of her skirt “conspicuously” showed religious affiliation. A hijabi, Sarah dutifully complied with France’s ban on hijabs in school and removed it before the schoolday began. “The girl was not excluded, she was asked to come back with a neutral outfit and it seems her father did not want the student to come back to school,” stated local education official Patrice Dutot.
Sarah has since returned back to her classes, but the incident has once again thrown the veil laws back onto center stage (though in all honesty, they’ve never left). A young girl gets yelled at for wearing a long skirt, while an older woman is critiqued for her lack of clothes (ironically, it’s usually the other way around, with the young girl dressing more ‘immodestly’). Their choices may be superficially different, but the debate is the same: women’s bodies. Women’s fashion choices. Women’s modesty. Cultural traditions. Religious beliefs. Both Abeer and Sarah are victim to the same age-old discussion of policing women’s bodies, one that particularly plagues the Muslim world and Muslim women wherever they travel to across the globe.
There are a few interesting differences, namely the fact that Sarah’s headmaster cited a law that firmly bans conspicuous religious symbols in school. That a skirt could be a religious symbol is ridiculous: plenty of women young and old like to don maxi skirts and dresses, although it is true that they are much more popular among Muslim women. The Emirati accuser could easily have cited the UAE’s modesty laws-although one is allowed to sit on Dubai’s beautiful beaches in a bikini if one wishes-but it would have been the boutique’s discretion on whether or not to call the police; besides, it is a woman’s boutique. And while the UAE’s modesty laws are tied to a millenia of religious and cultural tradition, France’s veil laws-no matter how thinly veiled-are also meant to provide a space of safety and secularism that all can benefit from.
What I found most interesting about Abeer Sabry’s botched shopping trip was the fact that her accuser was a woman, not an old man or the morality police. A woman. A woman who should have sympathized and empathized with her, even if she herself has only worn abaya in public since she hit puberty. A woman who should know better than to bodyshame in the manner that she did, in public, while filming her encounter! Even more appalling was the fact that, unlike the case of Sarah versus her school, which was essentially one of Muslimah versus secular school, the Emirati woman and Abeer Sabry are both Arabs and Muslims (correct me if I’m wrong about Ms. Sabry). This was not the case of a ‘ignorant’ Westerner coming to a Muslim country, or a clash of ‘East versus West.’ Perhaps the Emirati woman would have been more forgiving though if, instead of an Egyptian actress, she had confronted said ignorant Western tourist.
In 2014 around 130 students in France were prevented from attending their classes for their alleged religious attire, according to the Collectif contre l’Islamophobie en France (CCIF), although the CCCIF did not say what type of religious attire it was. France is further considering banning hijabs from universities. The UAE has decided to provide abayas for uncovered citizens and tourists at various places including courtrooms to prevent any immodesty. Both secular France and the Emirati government might think they have nothing in common in regards to the issue of a woman’s dress, but they are in fight both fighting on the same side-albeit for different results-against the same enemy: women.