Only about ten percent of the 8 million people who live in the United Arab Emirates, one of the world's wealthiest nations, are actually Emirati citizens; the rest are Western expats or Asian, African and Middle Eastern guest workers. Most locals are fans of Western pop culture, but there's one foreign form of expression they can't stand: skimpy clothing.
23-year-old Asma al-Muhairi told the AP that she had always been anxious about the effect of Westernized clothing on her younger nieces — how long can they be expected to don full-length black robes if they see girls gallivanting around in sundresses? — but she was finally inspired to launch a Twitter campaign against short shorts and crop tops when she ran into two female foreigners at a luxury shopping mall wearing "I can't say even shorts. It was underwear...I was standing and thinking: `Why is this continuing? Why is it in the mall? I see families. I see kids around."
The UAEDressCode Twitter feed, which now has almost 3,500 followers, is a way for the Emerati minority to make their voices heard. "If we were the majority and had the same make up, things would be different," said Jalal Bin Thaneya, an Emirati activist. "You wouldn't need anything. You would see Emiratis everywhere and you would be afraid of offending them ... Now, we're a minority so you feel the need to reach out to an authority."
The UAE already has a very strict indecency code when it comes to alcohol and PDA (the courts are apparently "filled with cases of foreigners having sex out of wedlock"), but there's no specific mandate when it comes to clothing. During summertime, Emeratis and foreigners alike hole up in air-conditioned malls, which means conservatively-clad women have to spend time with women wearing, well, shorts that look like underwear.
Al-Muhairi's campaign isn't the first of its kind, but it's the first to use social media to mobilize supporters — and it's the first since the Arab Spring uprisings, which has made Emiratis feel like they have more agency. It's not a fake feeling; the Federal National Council noticed the campaign and has promised to push for harsher dress codes that could include warnings and fines but not jail time. One FNC member, Hamad al-Rahoomi, said the law could be similar to those in France that ban niqabs or a new conservative dress code at Royal Ascot in Britain. (Kind of stretching the analogy, maybe, since the Royal Ascot is a social event and not a country, but okay.) "We don't want to catch people. We just want people to think of the other parties," he said. "What I want is to go with my family in my country and not see something that is harming me."
But the FNC doesn't actually have the power to make laws, so it's up to the UAE government. Will politicians listen, or will they prioritize foreign lifestyles? The Abu Dhabi police is taking baby steps by issuing booklets on fashion dos and don'ts that tourists can snap up at the airport and at hotels. Predictably, the tourists are not super supportive. "I think it's ridiculous because most of the people in Dubai are tourists," Sarah, a 21-year-old tourist from Kenya "wearing a short dress exposing her shoulders and legs" told the AP. "I want to go somewhere where I would be comfortable in my own skin as a travel destination. I feel comfortable like this and this is how I will dress."