8 Tips for Dressing in the Middle East

Cultural Travel, Middle East — By on April 25, 2012 at 9:00 am
Women Middle EastBy Ashleen Williams
Special to Lost Girls 

Dressing to look like a local can sometimes be difficult. For me, navigating an abaya without tripping in it, is easily my greatest difficulty. The abaya is a long black robe that women in the Middle East wear with a shayla or head scarf, this is especially true in the Gulf.

For those of us who will always trip in the floor length gown, there are some alternatives to keep you on your feet while adhering to a conservative dress code. Here are some suggestions for dressing like a local:

Layer

It is extremely hot in the Gulf, and it’s easy to resent the long sleeves and long pants that seem to trap the heat inside. Try a light cardigan and a tank top. This will at least keep you a little bit cooler in 120 degree weather.

Long skirts

I always take a long black skirt with me when I travel.  In the summer you can dress conservatively wearing a long sleeve top with a black skirt, or you can add a belt and go out for a night on the town in perhaps a too short dress (depending of course, on where you are).

Leggings

In some places, like Bahrain or other “liberal” places, you can get away with just about any length of skirt if you pair it with leggings.

The scarf

In the gulf, black is in for the head scarf. In the Levant, bright colors tend to work better – you don’t want to be asked which funeral you’re going to. If you don’t need to cover your hair, you can throw a scarf on to cover up a low cut blouse, and you have an emergency scarf just in case.

Sunglasses

Dark sunglasses with a lot of bling. First, if you’re traveling in the gulf, you will never be wearing too much bling or something that’s too flashy. My license plate is actually illegal because it isn’t “shiny” enough. Second, dark sunglasses will make it easy to navigate the souq without making eye contact and drawing unwanted attention.

Tank tops

Tops should always be high cut and, more often that not, without lace edging on the neckline. If you want to blend in, then simplicity is really your best friend.

Beach outfits

I can’t stress how hot it gets to be throughout the middle east, and unless you’re on a private beach or sporting the famous burkini, then it can be difficult to cool off at the beach. Light tshirts and shorts or a skirt are ways to get around this!

The Abaya

It really is the greatest piece of clothing once you learn how to walk in it. You can wear whatever you want underneath, and as long as you don’t somehow reveal your outfit.

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    6 Comments

  • This is a great resource. I think its a little daunting as a female traveller to know what to pack for the middle east, and this definitely helps

  • Rachel says:

    Ashleen, these are some fantastic tips that are essential to readers of Pink Pangea, the community of women travelers!

  • Johan says:

    Good info, thanks 😀

  • Sarah says:

    These are some great tips, but how does one keep a head scarf in place when you’re not used to wearing one?

    I’m a pro with long skirts, but the head scarf is where I trip up.

  • Kimberly says:

    I live in the Middle East (UAE) and can attest to the usefulness of layers. However, there are a couple of things to note if you plan on using a scarf to cover your hair or on wearing the abaya.
    1—If you travel in Lebanon, dress however you want. You will see what I mean when you get there. Jordan is also less conservative, but in any Muslim country, I recommend keeping shoulders, cleavage and legs below the knee covered to be respectful. In more conservative countries like in the Gulf, keeping your legs covered is a good idea.
    2—Covering your hair is Islamic, and it is not done by all Muslims. If you do this, people are going to assume you are Muslim and when they find out you are not, they are going to think you are odd. They do not expect non-Muslims to cover their hair. If you look and feel awkward trying to keep your hair “under-wraps,” it is going to call even more attention to you as an outsider rather than making you look like a local. Don’t bother unless you are someplace that requires it. That said, yes, the scarf covers shoulders, necklines, anything you might need covering and just plain stylish.
    3—The abaya. Abayas are very common where I live and I am required to wear one to work because I work at a local school. That said, the locals here find it quite bizarre for a non-Emirati, especially a non-Muslim to wear an abaya. In fact, when I forget a change of clothes and have to wear one to the mall or to run an errand after work, a Western woman walking around in an abaya gets a lot of attention, mostly negative. No one is upset, mind you, but the local women look at me like I forgot to wear pants and the local men, well, that’s another story. Again, we are expected to be respectful to their culture, not imitate it. It takes a lot to pull off an outfit you are not raised wearing. Women in the abaya have their own walk and style. They “own” that abaya. If you think you can manage, go for it and have fun. Otherwise, dress modestly and feel comfortable!
    Enjoy the Middle East—it’s an amazing place and nowhere NEAR as intimidating as people think.

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