DOHA: Mariam Saleh avoids malls and outdoor markets on the weekends because the low-cut tops, sheer dresses and miniskirts that foreign women wear reveal much more than she would like her impressionable young children to see.
Saleh is part of a campaign in Qatar that was spurred by locals who are fed up with the way many tourists and visitors dress, especially as temperatures soar in the Gulf Arab nation. The campaigners say Qatar is, after all, their country, and they should not be the ones feeling uncomfortable because visitors want to show some skin or dress like they would back home.
The campaign is aimed at encouraging foreign women to dress more conservatively. However, it is not spearheaded by religious hard-liners, but by moderate locals who are concerned that a steady influx of foreigners is threatening to uproot their customs and traditions, which are intertwined with 1,400 years of Islam on the Arabian Peninsula.
The campaigners say they are mothers and wives, but also gatekeepers of Qatar’s Islamic society. Most Qatari women cover their hair and wear long, loose black robes. Many also cover their faces as is common in neighboring Saudi Arabia, where morality police enforce the region’s strictest dress code on locals and foreigners alike.
The campaigners began handing out flyers this week. They will set up booths on June 20 throughout the capital, Doha, and plan to pass out more than 200,000 flyers to raise awareness about local sensitivities with slogans such as: “Leggings are not pants” and “If you are in Qatar, you are one of us.”
Children will be wearing the slogans on T-shirts, and men and women will be passing out traditional coffee, chocolates and roses along with the brochures.
The government, which allows alcohol in hotels to accommodate foreigners, is not involved in the campaign, which is being funded by volunteers, as well as a women’s business club in Qatar. The campaigners say it is a grassroots effort aimed at spreading information to foreigners rather than pressing for new laws or reforms. Political activism of any kind is heavily restricted by Qatar’s ruling monarchy.
Similar efforts to curb Westernization are underway in other Gulf countries. In Kuwait, a lawmaker is calling for a ban on public “nudity” – a reference to bikinis on the beach and at hotel poolsides. In Bahrain, lawmakers frequently call for banning alcohol in hotels, and in the United Arab Emirates, locals launched a similar dress code campaign in 2012.
While some malls in the UAE ticketed women for showing shoulders and knees, the government did not move to create any specific laws against immodest dress. Qatar’s pro-Western government, which benefits from tourism and foreign investment, is also not expected to enact any such laws.
The tiny nation is home to the world’s third-largest gas reserves. A rush of petrodollars transformed its capital in just a few decades from a coastal fishing town into a center for global investment. The speed of the transformation has stunned Qatar’s conservative, tight-knit population.
Qataris currently make up less than 10 percent of the country’s 2.1 million people, with most of the population comprised of Asian, African and Middle Eastern guest workers, as well as Western expatriates living in the country temporarily.
Like other Gulf states, Qatar relies on millions of foreigners to provide everything from the muscle to build high-rises to world-class experts to lead mega-projects. It is preparing to host one of the world’s largest sporting events, the football World Cup in 2022.
Four years ago, concerned citizens launched a campaign called “One of Us” to encourage foreign women to cover from their shoulders to their knees, but the campaign had little impact on visitors who felt out of touch with Qatari society.
This time around the theme is “Reflect Your Respect.” The flyers that will be passed out have one central plea: “Help us preserve Qatar’s culture and values.”
“We’re not telling you not to dress up. Get dressed up, but with respect, with modesty,” businesswoman Suhaila al-Harab, a supporter of the campaign, said. “I’m coming to a conservative country. I have to respect the culture of this society. This is a sensitive society and one has to be considerate of this point.”
Speaking from her home in Doha, Harab says her boys are inundated with Western movies, music and fashion trends. She says Qatar is used to foreigners and is ready to welcome people from around the world for the World Cup, but she is urging visitors to be open to learning and embracing new ideas.
“It’s very nice for a woman to dress modestly,” she said.
British tourist Roger Maynard recently visited Doha’s old souk with his Spanish wife, who wore a sleeveless dress that came down to her knees. He said they were being careful not to dress inappropriately.
“I think when in Rome, you should behave like the Romans, and I think you should be conscious of the local culture, and I think it’s quite reasonable,” he said of the campaign’s request.
“That doesn’t mean to say I agree with the culture or particularly the way women are, in a sense, discriminated against. But nonetheless, you come to visit a country, you should accept the culture of that country.”
Among Qatari men and women, conservative dress is seen as a way of deterring premarital sex and adultery, as well as treating women with respect. Islamic teachings hold that most or all of a woman’s body should be concealed from people outside her immediate family.
“The earth has an outer sphere, an atmosphere, to cover and protect it. The egg has its shell. Everything has something that protects it,” Saleh said. “We feel that a woman is like a pearl. She has to have a shell to grow and flourish.”