What to Wear in an Arabic Country

Emma - 26 March 2015

One of the main concerns when going to a culturally different country is not offending nationals of that country. What to wear in an Arabic country can be a difficult point, as conservative dress competes with the often overwhelming heat.

You almost certainly won’t have to wear a burqa, but I would certainly advise making an effort to dress in a way that will not draw attention to you or embarrass those around you. What this entails depends on the country you are in. While some countries may take a relaxed approach (e.g. Turkey), others (e.g. Saudi Arabia) expect extremely conservative dress, especially from women. Within these cultures, there may be differentiation depending on whether you’re at the beach, a hotel pool, private company, etc. Take your cues from others.

My experience stems from visiting a handful of Arabic countries, most significantly Morocco, Egypt, Turkey and Oman. The first was years ago when I feel I made some mistakes in the clothing I wore which subsequently impacted the trip, and the latter three were last year, when I thought a lot more closely about the issue. My conclusions were:

Top

Ideally, you want to cover up with loose-fitting clothing, which covers both arms and with a high neckline. This can be done by adding a thin shirt to a sleeveless top. Do not wear sleeveless tops, low necklines, or crop tops. I know it’s hot, but the discomfort of being hot will be enormously outweighed by the discomfort of the frosty reaction you receive. Or worse, leery attention that you could do without.

Don't do this! You may want a better tan, but save the bare shoulders for the privacy of your hotel.Don’t do this! You may want a better tan, but save the bare shoulders for the privacy of your hotel.

I found covering up with a light shirt didn't make me hotter, and covered everything that needed covering!I found covering up with a light shirt didn’t make me hotter, and covered everything that needed covering!

Bottom

Trousers are appropriate in most countries, but you’ll probably be cooler in a long skirt. It should be below your knee, ideally full length. A thin fabric that can billow a little would help you stay cool. Expect floor length clothing to get dirty. I wore a tunic and leggings one day and felt like reactions to me were a lot less friendly.

This skirt was perfect in Oman, light fabric, but covers my legs right down to my ankles.This skirt was perfect in Oman, light fabric, but covers my legs right down to my ankles.

Feet

Feet don’t need to be covered, so wear sandals if you like. Women in countries I visited liked to express their fashion through flamboyant heels and handbags.

Headscarf

Often first-time visitors to Arabic countries will ponder whether they’ll be expected to wear a headscarf. Unless you’re going to an uncommonly conservative country or region, it will not be expected of you. However, I would recommend taking one and wearing it one day to observe the different reactions. I found it to be a freeing experience, as I could blend into a crowd, and instantly be ignored by the touts thronging around. It will also come in useful if you want to enter a mosque as part of you visit, as these often require you to cover your hair.

Just bring one and use it where feels necessary. Tie it however you like, there are plenty of tutorials online, but remember to pin it on.Just bring one and use it where feels necessary. Tie it however you like, there are plenty of tutorials online, but remember to pin it on. There are lots of different ways to tie headscarves - try searching online to find one you likeThere are lots of different ways to tie headscarves – try searching online to find one you like

A headscarf can also be a useful shade for your head, and prevent burning your scalpA headscarf can also be a useful shade for your head, and prevent burning your scalp

In General

Loose fitting, natural fabrics will keep you the coolest. I found that when I dressed in light layers, I could be covered with only my hands feet and face showing and not be overly hot. I would warn against offensive slogans, but I’ve seen men in Egypt and Turkey nonchalantly wearing openly explicit slogans without censure, so perhaps this isn’t so bad. Swimsuits on beaches are tolerated in tourist resort regions, but frowned upon elsewhere. Observe people around you and take your lead from them.

I feel I should take a moment to explain my choices to cover up, when at home any sign of sun would see me outside in spaghetti straps and shorts. I dislike society dictating to women what must be worn, but that is countered by my reluctance to cause offense to local cultures when abroad.

If a woman from a culture which only wears waist cloths were to brazenly walk around Central London topless, onlookers would be outraged and a bit embarrassed. She could even be arrested for indecent exposure. One would hope that this hypothetical visitor would politely cover herself as expected by the local culture to avoid causing them upset.

Equally, I do not object to covering my shoulders and legs. I am a guest in their country, and it’s my duty to avoid disrespecting or offending my hosts. The body parts we deem to be improper are arbitrarily chosen, and we find ourselves mired in hypocrisy if we argue that it is our right to show our shoulders, whereas breasts are indecent.

From a selfish view, it is to my benefit as a female traveler. You are received with greater warmth when it’s seen that you’re visibly making an effort to assimilate with your host culture. I compare my experience of Morocco when I was 18 to my experience of Egypt last year. In Morocco, I acknowledged local custom by wearing (almost) knee-length skirts with strappy tops. I hated the leering men, sexually explicit catcalling, scornful glances of women, and feeling of otherness. In Egypt, dressed conservatively in full length skirts and long-sleeved tops, I found myself feeling more welcomed. People, both men and women, were more willing to talk to me. I was treated with careful kindness and respect.

It’s a complicated issue. I don’t want to condone what has been in some states the repression of women. Parallel to that, I do not want to offend by insisting that my culture is correct, and refuse to temporarily conform to their equally valid views. Really, deciding what to wear in an Arabic country is a personal choice.

Comments