What to wear – in the Middle East.

I’m off to a ball tonight. And, just like Cinderella and a gazillion other women before me, I have spent way to much time thinking about what I’m going to wear. This isn’t always the case, usually on such an occasion I would bring out “The Feathers” (Henry Hotdogs favourite) but apart from the fact that my black tie, plucka duck is dying a slow malting death – there is also the problem of cleavage, the dress is a maybe too low cut and I’m always a little self conscious when I wear it.

The question of what to wear takes on a life of its own in the Middle East.  If you’re a Qatari woman and out in the company of both men and women in public,  I think it’s safe to say you will always wear an Abaya. What you have on under that Abaya is completely up to you, if you’re at University you may choose to spend the day in your pyjamas, if you’re out and about with friends it’s possible you’re in a pair of skinny jeans and 5 inch heels. I have Qatari friends from both camps. A Qatari woman will almost always have her hair covered and may or may not choose to cover her face with a hijab. There are many variations on the same theme – but there is a theme. A dress code.
If you’re not from the Middle East, the dress code can be tricky for some. The range appears to float anywhere between Pretty Woman and The Sound of Music. 
When I moved to Qatar I did what most newcomers do, I read the travel guides and looked online as to what was considered culturally “appropriate”. I sent off emails to friends of friends and asked G to ask around at the office. The same phrases popped up everywhere but there were the same constant three  “keep your shoulders covered” and “skirts must fall at the knee” along with “cleavage should be covered”.
I have taken the when in Rome approach to dressing in Qatar. I knew the rules before I came here and if I didn’t like them I wouldn’t have agreed to come. It seems that once you know the rules it’s a little disrespectful to purposely ignore them. In the same way that if I was in Japan I would take my shoes off at the door.  In Ethiopia I wouldn’t use a finger to point.  In Indonesia I would not point the soles of my shoes in the direction of another. It’s cultural.

Here is the very fabulous Sheikha Al Mayassa, who explains her wearing of the Abaya and life here in Qatar. I was in the audience on the night she gave this speech. I love her. LOVE her.

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