Should I… conform to religious or cultural dress codes?

helen jennings - article

Helen Jennings, Tourism Concern writer, ponders a tricky issue: 

There are several typical instant reactions to this type of question.  One is to say that it is entirely appropriate and important to respect the laws of hospitality and pay due deference to our hosts –  ‘when in Rome’.  Another response is to feel aggrieved. It may be patronising of me, but I am used to enjoying my liberty to choose what I wear, speak as I wish, and travel with relative freedom. As usual with two extreme positions, most of us fall betwixt and between, and the practical answers when faced with these situations on the ground are often complex.

Every country and person has their own norms and codes of conduct; but should you adjust to them, even if you don’t necessarily agree?  If you are a guest does it matter whether you agree or not? Are you making a statement about your freedom by not complying with another’s person’s standards? Are you making a statement about theirs? Does it encourage diversity, to dress differently in a place that asks for uniformity, or does it simply offend and close the chance for engagement and the exchange of opinions.  If I don’t agree with the dress code they are requesting, should I just not go? I often ask myself these questions, I wonder how much it actually makes a difference and if so, when?

When we travel abroad we do so as guests in the countries of other people who observe different religions, cultures and social mores.  If we are well advised by guides and hosts, we will probably notice a hierarchy of respect that we should show when visiting different sites. Places of worship and veneration probably command the strictest adherence to rules such as covering heads and shoulders, covering flesh more generally, and removing footwear. Likewise, there will be restrictions on mode of behaviour, speech, and body language.  We may be permitted to observe in silence, but we may occasionally be encouraged to participate in some fashion.

I have in the past felt a little affronted when asked to cover up; I hope that I always dress appropriately and thus do not need to be told how to dress.  I do not personally hold to any religious guidelines or restrictions on how I should appear/ dress or behave as a woman. I enjoy my freedom and my individuality and want to express that.  These feelings, however, are just my gut reactions and they ignore the complex issues playing out here.  I am a visitor and a guest, and as such I want to meet and engage with the people and the place that I am visiting.  The best way to do this is surely simply to show respect and abide by local customs?

In 2014, Quatar, a conservative Islamic country, launched a media campaign entitled, ‘Reflect your Respect’, which asked tourists to dress modestly in public and respect the countries values. Diagrams were issued to illustrate what clothing was and was not acceptable. Guidelines were given to both men and women.  One message from the campaign read: “If you are in Qatar, you are one of us. Help us preserve Qatar’s culture and values, please dress modestly in public places.” The ‘Reflect your Respect’ campaign drew a passionate and mixed response. Some people agreed, ‘do as the Romans do’, others, however, spoke about it being oppressive and some even gave a classic retort that: ‘they don’t respect our traditions, so why should we’?

It is important to remember, that whilst our dress codes are arguably more relaxed here in Britain, and largely ungoverned by religious structures, we certainly do have them, and find it strange and uncomfortable if people dismissed them.  For example, we do expect tourists to dress modestly in churches and other sacred places. Similarly our media is full of discussions on how appropriate the hijab and burka are in our society. When we talk of such matters we tend to talk about our behaviour when abroad, yet we now encounter such dilemmas quite frequently at home.  We have friends and live in an increasingly multi-cultural, multi-faith society.

Once, whilst visiting friends in Malaysia, on a hot day I was accordingly dressed in light informal clothing, when we were asked by a family enjoying the Eid festival to join them. We were delighted, the food looked incredible, and the hosts were obviously very friendly. They were dressed in their religious/ celebratory clothes. We were very conscious that were dressed very differently. We tried to say please let us go get dressed and then we will join you, but they insisted that there was no need and that it didn’t matter at all.  So we joined them in with their celebration, learnt more about what it meant to them, and had the kind of genuine interaction and exchange of stories that makes travelling so special. It was fine that we weren’t dressed like them, because they didn’t mind. I suppose the point here is that rules can be bent, but only when the hosts permit.

How we dress/appear is an important factor in how we interact with each other. What we wear says much about who we are. Modes of dress can clearly offend and lead to misunderstandings.  If explicitly flouting basic dress codes widens the cultural divide, while honouring and respecting them can lead to better engagement, surely the latter is more worthwhile. The key to respectful travel and thus opening encounters is surely to ask about dress codes and expected behaviour, read up on local customs, and behave in a courteous and modest fashion at all times when in public places, I think this is the most likely way to glean real information about your hosts, and thus have a meaningful encounter.

Helen Jennings has an MA in Indigenous Studies from The Arctic University of Norway (Tromsø).


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