Remember Molly, the young traveler I met while riding along the Gold Coast in Australia? Well, as I thought about where my next destination would be following my stay in Melbourne, I was reminded of her colorful stories about her experiences in Abu Dhabi. Dubai was already on my radar since a colleague had recently visited and highly recommended I add it to my itinerary. I decided to invest a week in the United Arab Emirates, equally split between the two cities, before crossing Europe to meet up with my friends in England.
In Abu Dhabi, I reserved a guided tour, figuring that was the best (and safest) way to explore the city and learn about the region. I was the last hotel pickup, and when I entered the bus, a group of Black women was already on board. How exciting! We all had the same idea and were the only passengers touring that day, so we got a lot of special attention from our guide. We were scheduled to visit Ferrari World, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Heritage Village, and a date souk market near the coast.
Our tour guide, Jabar, was phenomenal. Since there were only five of us, he could take his time giving in-depth history lessons and sharing cultural tidbits to facilitate positive engagement with the local residents. Jabar was personable and attentive to every question and request, as I suppose was his job, though he went above and beyond to show us a good time. We arrived at Ferrari World first, which may have been more exciting if I were into cars like that or if we had time to play in the amusement park. But we mostly walked around to view the floor models and listened to the loud screeches and cheers from the rollercoaster zipping overhead.
Our next stop was the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, and Jabar advised us thoroughly on the dress code for entering the mosque. We were told to wear clothing to cover our extremities and were suggested to wrap ourselves in a loose-fitting dress. One of the ladies was already decked out in a colorful hijab and gown, looking like she came ready with all the elegance. Jabar offered the rest of us thick black abayas for rent, but I declined since I also came prepared with a decorative satin wrap I planned to drape around my waist to create that flowy dress look. That day, I wore a long-sleeved shirt and blue jeans, nothing exuberant and certainly in compliance with the dress code. Before we departed, I checked in with Jabar to ensure my attire was acceptable. He approved. Then, the five of us left him behind to head toward the first security station, a small booth manned by four guys dressed in traditional kanduras.
I could tell almost immediately that there was going to be a problem, but I didn’t know exactly what. The men were looking rather piercingly up the line in our direction, and, to be fair, I was not sure if those were stares of disapproval or if they were akin to the salacious gawks I’d been receiving from men all weekend as I walked the promenade, relaxed at Corniche Beach, or exercised at the hotel gym. While it would have been grossly inappropriate in this setting, the looks were eerily similar, and my discomfort felt the same. And I wasn’t the only one to notice. The ladies and I reached the front of the line, now face-to-face with the officers. Only three were granted entry inside the tent for the second security checkpoint, while the other two were denied. I was one of the two. In confusion, I asked why and was told my dress was inappropriate without further information.
I was shocked. I’d been so self-conscious about adhering to the customs and rules in this region that it was baffling to now be accused of disrespecting the mosque and worshippers with my dress. Secondly, those who know me would never describe my fashion as immodest—quite the contrary. On most days, I dress like a fifth-year college student, rocking hoodies, T-shirts, jeans, or sweatpants. At work, I may wear a uniform or dress business casual. And then there are occasions where I embrace my feminine figure more by wearing spaghetti string tank tops or yoga pants but certainly not while I was in the UAE. Again, I made the point to respect the culture’s conservatism and felt embarrassed by being sent away in shame.
I returned to the bus and relayed the incident to Jabar. He suggested I add covering to my top by extending the wrap hoisted around my waist. Jabar assisted with pinning the cloth in place and again approved me to return to the gate. But I could feel the men’s eyes on me as I walked toward the line. I silently hoped the modification would be sufficient while studying their faces in search of clues about how they might rule. The line was much longer this time, and I couldn’t afford further delays, given the time allocated for the mosque.
There was a group of Chinese women ahead of me, about four or five of them. My forehead instinctively frowned when I observed that a few had no additional garment covering their clothes but was still granted passage into the mosque. WTH? I examined the ladies, trying to figure out what made their attire ok and mines unacceptable. We were all wearing jeans and plain shirts. The only difference was that I had an additional wrap, and they didn’t. Yet, when it was my turn with the guards, I was again dismissed. Now I’m pissed.
I did a quick breathing exercise to calm myself down enough to talk to the guards with the reverence they were due, given their position. I said, “Excuse me, sir, can you please explain to me why I am unable to enter?” One guard motioned with his fingers as if drawing a sloppy silhouette of my frame and replied, “You need something more to cover that.” Cover what? I was confused, so I pressed the issue. “I am covered. I’m wearing a wrap and am dressed decently beneath it. The ladies who just entered had no covering, so what am I doing wrong?”
Now the guard became impatient, perhaps even insulted by being questioned by a woman. We’re not going to pretend like patriarchal attitudes and overtures aren’t part of the region’s cultural fabric. Whether it’s rooted in religion or tradition, I was forewarned before traveling to UAE to be mindful of social norms that my American mind might read as misogynous. I say it that way because it’s too easy to judge cultural practices when you sit outside that culture. I’m not here to assess or critique the social dynamics and norms of the UAE. I was just bothered that these guards found me immodest and unfit to enter their mosque when I did everything I could to present myself respectfully. And now I was even more enraged that there seemed to be a bias that allowed others dressed in less to pass but not me.
A younger guard standing nearby turned to me and spelled out the issue as plainly as possible: “It’s your body. You have curves. You have to find something that will cover everything.” Got it. I couldn’t pass that first checkpoint because my mama passed onto me the figure of all the queens in my ancestral lineage, blessing me with voluptuous hips, glutes, and breasts. It wasn’t that my clothes were inappropriate; it was the simple fact that nothing I wore could mask my curvaceousness. I had Black girl humps, and these guards found them too tempting and, therefore, indecent for temple-going. Now I understood why the Asian women were able to skate past without scrutiny. And no, I’m not perpetuating stereotypes but rather objectively reporting my observations of those particular women. They were flat in all directions, which shielded them from being sexualized. I wasn’t so lucky.
I returned to the bus a second time to relay this message to Jabar, who smirked and graciously gifted me one of the oversized abayas stored on the bus. He helped me climb into it and, for the third time, approved my look. I stomped my way back across the parking lot the way Ms. Sophia marched through the cornfields to check Celie. I was hot, literally and figuratively. It was over 100 degrees that day, and there I was, painfully cloaked in jeans and a thick ass living room curtain, just to see a mosque I now had only 10 minutes to view. I was fuming.
Now my third time in the line, I was looking at them, and they were looking at me. I walked toward the guards saying to myself, “If they send me back one more time, I’m done.” I felt certain I would lose my cool if I received anything less than a nod of approval. I stood in front of the elder of the guards and watched as he looked me over a few times. In my head, I thought, “What, man? What do you have to say now?” I think the words channeled through my eyes, and he felt my frustration. He said nothing at all, only grunted with incredulity and motioned me to the security tent with his head.
When I finally cleared both security checkpoints, my group was leaving to make it back to the bus on time. I raced to take as many pictures as possible of the exterior before also returning to the bus, never making it inside the mosque. I didn’t want to hold up the group, knowing we had an itinerary to keep. I boarded the bus with a salty taste in my mouth, questioning why I had to go to such lengths to hide my body because these men felt tempted. We talked about it on the bus, questioning why it happened and whether it was justified.
Justified; that’s subjective, right? I listened to Jabar and respected his cultural viewpoint. But the conversation extended beyond UAE or even Islam, for that matter, given that girls in Christian churches and conservative households are taught the same, to be modest. That word, modesty, is so loaded and has historically been weaponized against women in a way that polices their bodies and shames the celebration of their femininity. From the time prepubescent girls start developing, we teach them that they are responsible for their objectification and must duly modify their appearance to avoid being sexualized. Schools nationwide enforce strict dress codes that largely target the female student body, all in the name of modesty, telling girls they are there to learn and not to be a distraction. A distraction for whom exactly? And why is it the girl’s duty not to distract others with her body and not the boy’s duty to avoid sexualizing her in the first place?
The more I stewed, the deeper I descended into thoughts about why, in the modern era, people continue to subscribe to and perpetuate these antiquated, misogynistic beliefs as if they don’t understand science. Our bodies are a matter of biology. As a fully adult woman with the biological accouterments of my womanhood, how could I be expected not to have hips and breasts? It’s unbelievable that I was met with such contempt for something as natural as the flowers blooming in the gardens. A woman’s body is nothing to be ashamed of or to veil in an effort to tame someone else’s impulses.