- Nia Alexander Campbell
Clothing, Modesty, & Self-Expression in Qatar
Qatari national dress and the fact you are in no way required to wear it
Prohibited clothing and the “Reflect Your Respect” campaign
Exceptions to the dress code and halal vs. haraam
The lack of a double standard when it comes to dress
Wearing clothes that express religious, social, or political views
Repercussions for breaking the dress code and the benefits of carrying a scarf
Dress code in clubs & bars and dressing for the weather
What defines modesty? And what other types of clothing still fit within the modesty rule?
Comparing Qatari dress standards to that of the U.S. (including how black people are expected to dress)
How the dress code changed the way I interpreted others and considered myself
Why you shouldn’t worry too much about censoring your personal style
**Not only are you about to witness to a variety of bathroom selfies, but you'll also bear witness to an F bomb that shall be dropped later.
At VCUQ. You can't go wrong with a cotton shirt and long skirt.
Qatar, subjected to a chokingly hot desert climate half the year, is also a Muslim country. This means that when you start packing, you’re going to want to include clothing that will both keep you cool and keep you modest. Though the idea of modest dress has a variety of interpretations, Qatar has some straightforward thoughts about what’s appropriate, what’s not, and when exceptions can be made.
That’s what we’re going to talk about.
OMG, You Can’t Show Your Arms?!
The face people made as I tried to explain Qatar's dress code to them.
Oh. My. God. I had an uncanny number of people voice their concern over the fact I would no longer be allowed to show my bare arms. People recoiled at the idea that I would have to wear long sleeves in hot weather in the same way they snort at eating ice cream in the winter or hot chocolate in the summer. They also seemed to think that long sleeves would be a major hindrance to my artsy-fartsy manner of self-expression through fashion. In short, the whole “modest clothes” thing was a major turnoff when it came to their idea of living in Qatar.
But the thing is, wearing long sleeves was not something I had to do.
Did you hear that? You don’t have to wear long sleeves, just like you don’t have to wear a hijab, a niqab, a burqa, or anything else you don’t want to wear, contrary to the surprisingly popular belief I encountered.
Yeah, it’s really that easy.
But let’s start here first:
What do the locals wear?
The national dress for men is an ankle-length tunic called a thawb (or thobe) paired with a ghutra (a headdress kept in place by doubled cords called agal). The national dress for women is the abaya, a robe-like dress paired with a headscarf called a shayla. It’s also not uncommon to see women in niqabs—robe-like garments that show only the eyes and hands—or older women wearing face pieces called a battoulah.
However, even though these garments are the country’s official norm, wearing them is in no way a requirement for neither locals nor expats & tourists. I saw just as many people wearing traditional Middle Eastern dress as I saw people wearing Western clothing (or better yet, Western clothing under their national dress). T-shirts, skinny jeans, skull caps, polos—you name it, someone’s probably wearing it—so chances are whatever you are used to wearing you can still wear, as long as it follows a few rules.
You like wearing jean jackets, sweatshirts, and leggings on a quick grocery store run? I sure do, and I didn't stop doing it while I was in Doha.
It’s much easier to list what sort of clothing you can’t wear than it is to list all the clothing you can wear.
Prohibited dress code items include:
Transparent clothing (when you can see underwear or spaghetti straps underneath)
Low-cut shirts (that show too much chest, both for men and women)
Leggings (when your shirt doesn't cover your butt)
Anything that violates the vague censorship policy (i.e. nothing with images of drugs, alcohol, pro-LGBT+, disrespect to Islam, disrespect to the government, disrespect to the royal family, or anything with sexual content [even the PG-13 stuff]
You see where I’m going with this? Here, check out this poster:
Started in 2014 by a group of Qatari women in an attempt to prevent"immoral behavior", here we have a "Reflect Your Respect" poster. There's another version that comes in blue & gray tones . . . gotta have variety. I heard that this campaign was inspired by the increase in tourism and expatriates over the last two decades.
No shoulders, no knees, no bare midriffs (although, know that cap sleeves and graphic tees are okay despite the third model’s image).
Exceptions to the dress code
There are certain circumstances in which you can wear some of the no-no articles of clothing. Tank tops, track shorts, sports bras, bikinis—all those things are typically fine to wear in all-female situations (like an all-female gym, exercise class, or pool day).
Though if I had to exercise or swim in a public place, my plan was as follows: A trip to the gym meant a t-shirt, long tank top (that covered my butt), and leggings. A trip to the pool meant my one-piece swimsuit, an activewear shirt tossed over it, some swim trunks (the baggy kind built for boys), and leggings if I really didn’t want any skin to show).
As a general rule, adding leggings, wearing layers, or tossing a scarf over your shoulders can suddenly make a haraam outfit hella halal . . . "haraam" refers to anything that is forbidden in Islam, while "halal" refers to what is permissible.
Haraam = 👎🏾
Halal = 👍🏾
Behold the power of layers.
The lack of a double standard
It’s also worth mentioning that these dress rules are applied to both men and women, unlike the unspoken double standards America perpetuates regarding male and female attire. You know, like that whole public-school dress code thing about girls not wearing spaghetti straps or leggings because it will distract the boys in class. Bullshit like that didn’t exist in Doha because everyone, man or woman, was subject to the same basic rules. I’m not saying Doha is free of gender-based biased; for example, I knew a female teacher who wasn't allowed to wear pants to work. Still, though, the modest clothing rules in Qatar were different than clothing expectations in the U.S., and that difference in particular is what I appreciated: The same (modest) expectations when it came how men and women should dress.
Speaking of double standards, though, let's talk about black people for a moment.
Did black people in Doha need to dress well?
You know what I mean when I say “need”? Let me give you a quick history rundown.
After the end of slavery in the U.S., the black community encouraged well-kempt appearances amongst themselves; hair combed and styled, groomed facial hair, clean clothes that matched and fit well—the newly freed black population wanted to present themselves as proper ladies and gentlemen, just as capable as their white counterparts and deserving of respect. This meaningfulness in looking sharp continued over the century and decades that followed, still attempting to combat institutionalized racism and especially racial stereotypes. These deep rooted stereotypes based on dress is the reason why a black woman in leggings is “sloppy” whereas a white woman is “sporty”, why a black woman with a messy puffball was “too lazy” to do her hair whereas a white woman with a messy ponytail was “too busy”, and why black man in a hoodie looks “dangerous” whereas a white man looks “comfortable”.
Are you with me so far? Are you understanding the links between dress and blackness in the U.S.? If so, then you can imagine why I was curious to know whether Qatar had a similar dynamic when it came to how black peoples’ appearances were interpreted.
Well, truth be told, it was hard to tell whether Qatar had these same vibes going on because:
1) There weren’t a lot of black people to observe in Qatar
2) 90% of the population was from countries outside Qatar, which meant there were a lot of people dressing in a lot of different ways
So, even though the Arabian Peninsula had a history of enslaving Africans (like the U.S.), and even though they’ve got their own contemporary hints of discrimination against black people (like the U.S.), at the end of the day Qatar still had a different history than the United States, which meant different sets of stereotypes and thus different reactions from the black community to combat stereotypes. One of those reactions didn’t seem to emphasize dress.
However, things like natural hair, economic status, and nationality (including one’s national dress) seemed to incite some underlying discrimination similar to what the U.S. dished out when it came to—well—anything related to black people. More of all that can be read about in the posts Juice & Berries (about having black natural hair in Qatar), Beauty & Blackness (the relationship between dark skin and beauty in Qatar), and the post about being black & American in Qatar.
But what about that censorship policy you mentioned?
There are some things in Doha that are censored, like certain websites and the media. A lot of what is censored is based on religion and politics, and as you know, religion and politics are two things that you are allowed to express in America. You can wear your kippah, your crucifix necklace, your dastaar, your faded Obama '08 shirt, your pussyhat, your Black Lives Matter leggings, your Confederate flag bomber jacket, and even your MAGA cap if that floats your boat. Granted, what you wear will be met with different reactions from different people, and sometimes those reactions can get nasty, but no matter what there is nothing stopping you from wearing what you want.
It's not quite like that in Doha. Like I mentioned in the list, you should avoid wearing things that offend the country, anything regarding the government or Islamic beliefs. But when it comes to other governments? Other religions? You can wear most anything. I mean, I'd recommend perhaps not wearing the football jersey from your favorite Saudi football player . . . Qatar and Saudi Arabia aren't friends right now and you may attract some severe unwanted attention. And there seems to be a bit of tension around Israel and Judaism as a whole in the Arab World, so maybe don't put the kippah on until you enter the synagogue . . . if you can find one.
And when it comes to wearing things that somehow comment on the American government or social climate? You know what, I don't know. I like to think that no one would be offended by references to things like Black Lives Matter, but I didn't wear anything like that, nor did I witness anyone else wearing something like it. I can't think of any reason Qatar would disapprove, but it's still something to consider because the country is so different than the United States.
In the U.S., heck, it's a big 'ol jumble of positive melting pot mentality mixed with a variety of discriminatory actions . . . You're going to find just as many people who celebrate your shirt as you'll find people who think it should be burned. Qatar, however, is not a melting pot and you may find yourself the only person in the room who agrees with what you believe in, be it political, social, or religious.
My best advice is to research what the political/social/religious climate is like in Qatar before you go there. Attitudes about everything and geopolitics are always changing, so just keep an eye on it all and tailor your self-expression to your comfort level based on what you learn.
Repercussions for breaking the dress code
One of the Reflect Your Respect posters. This one includes reference to Article 57 of the Qatar Constitution.
Alright, so breaking the dress code is technically punishable by law based on Article 57 of the Qatar Constitution, which basically states that all people residing in the state must abide by "public order and morality". Don't let this scare you, though! Even though there's some legal stuff associated with it, it’s still more of a cultural value that they ask everyone to participate in out of respect. This means that even if you are caught wearing something inappropriate, no one is going to beat you in the street or throw you in jail. The worst that will happen is that you may get some dirty looks, distracted stares, or be denied entry to a public space, like a mall or restaurant. How to remedy the situation? Change your clothes.
One suggestion is to carry a pashmina or large scarf around with you. It helps if you need to cover your head, shoulders, breasts, or if you just get cold. Note, as a woman you are only required to cover your head if you enter a prayer hall.
The power of a scarf is unbridled.
But clubs are different
Clubs and bars don’t follow the modest dress rules. In fact, I went to one club where head coverings weren't allowed, and at another I watched a girl wear only a t-shirt and thong, which meant her natural white butt cheeks said hello to everyone as she drunkenly got her boogie on. Clubs and bars are like no man's land when it comes to things like modest attire (and alcohol, btdubs), so if you are really itching to wear that metallic lace crop top bustier, a club will allow you to let your freak flat fly . . . just remember to carry some street appropriate clothes to toss on once you exit the haraam club bubble.
But it’s still so hot
Damn right it's hot. But you'll be okay, fam, I promise.
First of all, the unbearable heat doesn't start rolling in until April, so if you’re hanging out for the winter/spring like I was, you’ll only be subjected to the beginnings of that notorious desert hotness. My hottest day was on May 8th (the day of graduation) and at noon it was 108 degrees. Living in Richmond, our temperatures might reach a humid 100 F in late summer, so figuring out what to wear to a formal ceremony in a modest country when it was so freakin’ hot & dry outside felt like a true challenge.
Until I realized it was an easy challenge to solve.
Shoulders covered, tummy tucked, knees hidden, no cleavage, and boom-bam, all the basics were covered. The outfit still had slits in the pant up to my calves, and it was technically a see-through linen, but a camisole and black slip made the transparency a non-issue.
My point is don’t let the heat intimidate you!
Wearing a light muslin blouse and linen trousers—or a t-shirt and cargo shorts—can keep you just as cool as a spaghetti strap crop top and booty shorts. Also remember that skin-covered clothing will decrease your chance of sunburn; I don’t care how much melanin you’re packing, that sun will fry you after a while.
Alright, so I didn't dress myself in this photo, and even though I look cute, pink eyes shadow and pastels are not something I would normally wear. However, it still stands as another idea of what one can wear on an evening out to a sushi restaurant.
You’ve also got to remember that you’re not spending all day out in the heat! Doha was good for keeping their AC on blast in buildings, cars, parking decks . . . anywhere that could have AC, did have AC (and at times too much of it). If you are out in 100-degree heat, though, remember that staying hydrated will help you out a lot more than wishing you were wearing a tank top.
I know, there is a lot of fo'head in this photo. But you see that navy blue nerd cardigan? It may not be the most attractive, but it was the warmest "coat" I brought with me to the desert. It got the job done, but if I had to do it again, I would bring a real coat, if only to deter the 60 F air conditioning from seeping into my bones.
So, is modesty about fit or skin?
With all the different interpretations of modest, I wasn’t entirely sure whether the display of my chocolate skin would be more haraam than showing off my (hourglass) figure. So, I asked students if the modest rule was about skin or fit, as in to say, if I wore a long sleeved, knee length, fire engine red bodycon dress that makes my curves look like the baddest coaster at King’s Dominion, would I get in trouble. The consensus was: No. In short, the modesty rule is more so about skin, so if I wanted to wear a loose jersey dress that showed my bare shoulders and knees, that would be considered less modest than that fitted long-sleeved dress. It’s a distinction that made all the difference because it allowed me to understand that I could pack my favorite long sleeved Emmalise t-shirts even though they fit-to-form (which is why I bought them in the first place; fitted t-shirts are integral to my comfortable-but-not-a-bum look). It also allowed me to wear this:
Once I knew I could wear it, I couldn't help but be dramatic about it.
Even with that said, though, I'd still advise not to go too crazy with form fitting clothes while in public. Perhaps leave the leather catsuit at home? Perhaps that white bodycon dress will read differently than a fire engine red one? Humans have consumed an uncanny amount of visual material making materials like leather or colors like red have a particular sultriness to them when worn by a woman.
All I'm saying is keep that sort of thing in mind, you know?
And at the very least, bring some sort of jacket or scarf, something to cover your breasts or butt even if your outfit already covers most of your skin. If I had to wear the dress in that picture out to a restaurant, for example, I definitely would have brought a cover-up. Would I have taken the cover-up off once getting to the booth? Yes. But entering the restaurant? Walking to the ladies' room? I would have covered up some more.
In short, the modesty rule is more about showing skin than showing curves, however, keep your curves in mind. You don't want them getting into the wrong kind of trouble.
What else still fits within the modesty rule?
I know I said it’s easier to name what’s not allowed than what is, but there were still a few specific items I had questions about when packing for Doha. Fashion choices that may be considered flashy or in any way “un-modest” to a Western eye (like high heels, designer brands, or tight makeup) definitely still fit under the Qatari modest dress umbrella. In fact, I saw of all three of those things existing in Doha more than I had ever seen them in Richmond, but my suspected reasons for that I will save for another post.
Sandals are okay.
Baseball caps are okay.
But I also had a question about sunglasses.
I know, sunglasses sound like a no-brainer: It’s a sunny-ass country, of course people wear sunglasses. The thing is, ever anxious and always bespectacled, I craved a solid yes or no answer. So, what was the answer? Yes, you can wear sunglasses.
This was great news for me because I was longing for a new pair of sunglasses. You see, I like large frames for my prescription lenses, which meant the current pair of sunglasses I owned—the kind built to completely cover your prescription glasses—were twice as huge. They made me look like a space bug and I, understandably, was yearning for a different look. I didn’t want transitional lenses, though, I wanted sunglasses, I wanted to look through a tinted film and be hyperaware of the fact I was seeing at the world through a filter, something I hadn’t been able to do in over a decade. Buying prescription sunglasses, though, were entirely too expensive.
So, what did I do? I decided to order a new pair of prescription lenses from Zenni that came with sunglass inserts. Think of it like flip-up sunglasses except the inserts were entirely removable and significantly less 90s. The inserts were quick to attach & remove, easy to tote around, surprisingly durable, and I still had a functional pair of prescription lenses (and did I mention I had a thing for changing up my frames?). It was a win-win-win, and though it may sound like I’m hyping up something trivial, I feel like these things were one of my best investments of the trip from both a practical and personal standpoint (and they were only $25).
The dress code changed the way I looked at people
Even with the rules of dress, I still sometimes saw women (seemingly tourists) wearing things like spaghetti straps, crop tops, and shorts in public places. Nobody stopped them or harassed them, but people definitely stared, myself included. I had gotten so used to seeing covered bodies and covering my own body that when I saw that woman in the souq with her arms and legs exposed, I said to my friend, “What the fuck is she wearing?” For a hot second, her appearance felt completely foreign to me and my eyes couldn’t help but follow her in the crowd. It’s an interesting moment to reflect upon; four months in the country had completely altered my visual expectations without me even noticing, to the point where what was once normal for me to see at home suddenly felt severely out of place.
That in mind, seeing so many women wear the abaya/shayla combination also effected the way I viewed them. They wore it to the mall, to the park, to work, to the grocery store, to the mosque—they wore it everywhere—and I realized it made for an even playing field compared to an American way of life. The differences in their clothing (like embroidery or buttons vs. hooks) were subtle, and as a result, I was forced to see them as a person. This is significant because as a black woman in America, the way I choose to style myself effects my chances of respect, success, and even safety. If I have an interview, should I wear my hair straight or curly or in braids? If I wear leggings as pants to the coffee shop do I look comfortable or ghetto? Do my big earrings make me look "too black" for this environment? Do my loafers make me look "too white" for that environment? If I get kidnapped while wearing a crop top & mini skirt, will the media portray me as the overly sexualized Black Venus stereotype, will a barrage of victim-blaming befall my abused black body?
It sounds severe, but these are the things that I have to think about because people will see my clothes mix with my gender and my blackness before they see me. But, the idea that clothing could somehow be removed from the mix so that I stood a greater chance at people seeing me was a new, interesting, and often appealing concept to think about.
Now, did I wear an abaya in Qatar? No. I felt weird wearing one just for the hell of it, and in regards to my "people seeing me and not my race/gender" dream, I don't think it would have made a difference because, hey, I'm still black (and that had its own implications in Doha. However, that's a topic for another post).
Overall, don’t worry too much
Dressing in a new environment may seem intimidating, especially when overlooking a sea of abayas and thobes, but don't stress over it. Me, I didn’t worry too much, but I worried more than I should have. I was reluctant to pack things like graphic tees, baseball caps, and bikinis, things that would have been completely fine to wear either in general or in certain situations. The clothes I did choose to bring, though, were still completely expressive of, well, me.
I love big earrings, bright colors, and fun patterns going every which way, and the idea of giving those things up didn’t once cross my mind when packing for Doha. Granted, traditional dress is black or white, and accessories like scarves and jewelry tended to be a bit more subdued compared to much of my aesthetic, but it’s not like anyone stopped me from wearing what I wanted. The only critiques I received about my clothing came from friends who were trying to help correct what they thought could be improved upon; society as a whole, though, had no manner of insult, side-eye, or blatantly negative judgement for me.
In fact, I felt more comfortable experimenting with dress in Qatar than I did in America in part because Qatar hosted so many people from so many different backgrounds (nearly 90% of the country were foreigners). I know America is the official melting pot of the world, but it was also hella racist and sexist as of 2018, which naturally effected how I chose to style myself in certain environments. Yeah, Qatar definitely has its own social hiccups, but when it came to my comfort level, I felt I could be much more expressive there than at home.
So, wear what you want.
Wear what is respectful, but style yourself in whatever way makes you feel like the best version of yourself.