How to Dress for Success in Qatar?

I have been thinking a lot about how I will dress in Qatar next spring. While visiting the middle east last spring break, I saw a huge range in women’s clothes. I know that some visiting CMU-P students just wear the same clothes they wear in the US, and don’t feel uncomfortable. A minority of ladies at CMU-Q also wear western clothes, and a stronger minority wear headscarves and conservative style clothes, and all the other ladies wear abayas with varying combinations of black hijabs and niqaabs (spelling may vary for this word–perfect for ballistic spellers like me).

I have worn a hijab before, and usually dress fairly conservatively. However, I believe I will have a stronger experience during my study abroad if I pass as normal at first glance, rather than clearly being a clueless westerner. My observation while in Qatar was that women were afforded more instant respect and deference in direct relation to how conservatively they were dressed. A woman in jeans was ignored more easily than a woman in a kaftan, who is more easily dismissed than a woman in a black abaya. In the United States I have experienced the exact same thing: everyone from sales clerks to professors pay more attention to me and treat me better when I am conservatively dressed (black suite-coat and slacks) than when I am not (ratty jeans and a sleeve-less t-shirt).

I want to be treated well in Qatar, and am willing to dress differently to achieve this goal.

Clearly shorts and skimpy shirts are out of the question for public wear, but I am struggling to decide how far I want to go. I think I would be comfortable in a long skirt or dress, and loose-fitting, long-sleeved or 3/4 sleeved shirts. Maybe I will wear my abaya for special events (perhaps those where I would wear a full suit in the west).

I had a wonderful conversation with a muslimah on Greyhound about the meaning of religious head coverings for men and women last week. We talked about two reasons to cover: one is to show and to feel submission to God, and the other is modesty and protection from men. I do not think I will cover my hair at school. If I believed that was what God* wanted, I would submit and cover. However, that is not what I believe is necessary, so I will take the stares and the slight lessening of respect from strangers in Qatar rather than cover.

Of course, in a mosque I will cover out of respect in the same way I wear a yarmulke in a conservative friend’s temple, and if I am going somewhere I particularly do not want to attract attention, I am quite tempted to don my black niqaab as well. It will be like being Zorro.

However, for everyday wear, I have been toying with what I should buy to pass in the middle east (note: all links in this paragraph go to women-owned stores from this list). Should I buy a gloriously colorful Sharqyat? A Jilbab-style shirt to wear over my normal jeans? A nice, conservative suit? Right now, I am pretty partial to a women’s Thoub (note difference from Thobe, a piece of men’s clothing) paired with a good, opaque, undershirt.

There is one fashion trend I cannot conform to while in Qatar: sparkly shoes. All of the ladies I saw wore the sparkliest, trendiest shoes I have ever seen: multi-colored sequins and rhinestones abounded. Shoes, purses, sunglasses and jewelry are accessories which conservative Muslim ladies carry with impunity. But I will not conform. I am too much of a grimy geek to dress that way. No matter how conservative, my pants must stand up to baking-smudges, my shirts to push-ups, and my shoes to mud and taking the stairs two at a time. Anything else will not work, because not matter where I am, I am who I am.

*Assumptions about my faith based on this pronoun are probably wrong. God is simply a convenient word for who I see in the divine.

Inspirational Quote:

“Islam does not say whether a woman can wear trousers or not. The clothes I was wearing when the police caught me – I pray in them. I pray to my God in them. And neither does Islam flog women because of what they wear. If any Muslim in the world says Islamic law or sharia law flogs women for their clothes, let them show me what the Qur’an or Prophet Muhammad said on that issue. There is nothing. It is not about religion, it is about men treating women badly.”–Lubna, a Sudanese Muslimah in the news for wearing pants

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