Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Would America Be Better Off With An "Appropriate" Dress Code Requirement?

Last time I visited Dubai I attended a wedding. For those who do not know, weddings are usually a lavish affair in the Middle East. The expected dress for men is at least a suit and for women somewhere along the lines of a prom dress or a straight up ball-gown – regardless of age. Depending on the family or individual preferences, the dresses can be anything from short dresses, to mother-in-law dresses, to dresses conformed to full coverage complete with the scarf.

To be clear, the religious service has already occurred, so by American standards this would be referred to as the “reception”, but within the Muslim culture, this is referred to as the “wedding” because it is considered the “big announcement” and “first public appearance” of the couple as a bride and groom.

This wedding, as is usually the case, was held at a very fancy hotel in a banquet hall.  Usually the banquet hall is set up like any traditional banquet, large tables around the room, but with a stage as the main focal point. It may also include a dance floor as well as Disc Jockey or live music performer.
Once the majority of people arrive, the bride and groom usually make a grand entrance and take their seats on the decorated stage where they can observe their guests together.

Throughout the dinner service, usually a buffet demonstrating generosity toward the guests, guests will approach the bride and groom to give congratulations. Following dinner, the bride and groom will often start the first dance, usually slow, and then guests will join them on the dance floor.  There are exceptions to the dancing part, but usually, even if the bride and groom choose not to dance, they will still set it up for the guests’ enjoyment.

Likely this sounds very familiar to most people - though surprising that this is how the majority of weddings transpire in the Middle East. But it is true. I can, and plan to, share such shocking revelations about the reallife, and diversity, of Muslims in a lot of my writings.

But let me get to the point of the story.

We decided to leave the wedding and go home. As a group of us waited at the valet for our cars, I noticed the hotel had a club. Yes, a dance club. The entrance was near the area of the valet stop.

Yes, dance clubs, even not in hotels, are in existence, in larger numbers than you would think, throughout the Middle East – some even have alcohol available, either overtly or covertly. [Hope that did not cause you to fall out of your chair.] By no means am I suggesting everyone drinks, just that some do and it is available.

As people would enter the club, we could hear the dance music blaring (you could hear it when the door was closed too), and see the dark club inside with strobe-types lights and dancing silhouettes of people.

The people going by were all “dressed to the nines.” Men were wearing dress pants or jeans with a nice shirt and sometimes a sports jacket. The women all wore dresses – most of them fairly short (mid to upper thigh) and form fitting. Dubai is a huge tourist destination for all countries but these people were not foreigners, well, at least not non-Arabs.

One of the ladies waiting beside me lives in Dubai but is not from the United Arab Emirates. I turned to her and made the comment that I had to remind myself that I was not in the US because the attire was similar when going to a dance club there. The lady, who is Muslim and Arab, does not wear the scarf, and always wears skirts or dresses just above the knee, replied, “The Arabs have lost their modesty.”

Surprised and a little confused, I commented that I went to the mall that day and saw a notice on the mall directory that short skirts, strapless shirts, and low cut blouses were not acceptable attire at the mall - and yet I had seen all of those things both for sale and on customers.

She replied, “I wish they would put police at the entrances and actually enforce the dress code. The Arabs who come here are getting too immodest.”

I replied, “What dress code would you like them to enforce?”

She replied, “Just what it says, ‘No Short Skirts, No Strapless Shirts, and No Low Cut Blouses.’”

I turned fully to face her, smiled, and said, “You are wearing a short skirt.”

She replied, “No, my skirt is fine. I mean skirts that are mid-thigh or above.”

I laughed and said, “You understand that if they start enforcing a dress code, you have no say in how they define short skirts, right? That it might lead to your skirt being considered too short? That at some point a measuring standard will have to be created, and then a measuring instrument, and then enforcement could mean, because let's say . . .  your skirt is a quarter of an inch too short, you could be turned away from the mall?”

She replied, “No, because I dress modestly and they would never say my skirts are too short.”

Ok, wow!

And that is the problem with fashion police. We no longer live in a society, regardless of city or country, where we all agree on the definitions of “acceptable” or “modest.”

What I consider modest, others do not see it as modest enough – and still others see at as too modest, oppressive even.

I have chosen to dress the way I do for my own reasons, but I accept that what I have chosen for myself has no bearing on what others choose to do. I neither have an interest in forcing others to dress as I do nor in having in anyone tell me how to dress. ["Appropriate" dress discussions have a long history in the US, even now, from whether a rape victim "was asking for it" by her dress to whether "inappropriate" dress interferes with the "learning experience" in schools.]

An enforcement body defining what is an acceptable dress code that even the majority agree on is impossible – and we should be very scared of such suggestions because once a group has such authority, they might just decide what “we” consider acceptable to be unacceptable.

As much as I can argue that immodest dressing can have a negative effect on women, I can equally argue that dress codes have been used (even in the United States) as a form of oppression of women.

Women really did fight fifty years in the United States for women to be able to walk down the street any way women want – and that has to include both "completely covered" and "practically naked" (so differently defined according to who is asked).

Society, through family and social norms, can determine the limits - but individual choices will still have an impact. That is the trade-off for living in a diverse society - and regardless of ethnicity or religion, all societies are now diverse in many ideas, including in defining "appropriate" dress.

I can assure you in no uncertain terms, a suggestion of mandatory enforcement of a social dress code either way (more or less clothing), would cause me to raise my voice in protest louder and more aggressively than anything I have ever spoken out against before.  

The creation of a "Fashion Police" is a slippery slope for which I have no desire to even get close.

Do you think American society would be better or worse if an "appropriate" dress code were required?