Dubai is one of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Located on the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula along the Persian Gulf, it has emerged as a global city and international business hub. Dubai has a multicultural population with significant number of expatriates from all over the world.

While Dubai is considered one of the most liberal cities in the Gulf region, there are still rules and laws based on the local culture and traditions, especially when it comes to dress code. The dress code for women in Dubai balances local norms with expat expectations. Visitors are expected to dress modestly when in public. While Dubai doesn’t impose a mandatory dress code, women are advised to respect local culture when choosing their outfit.

Abaya

The abaya is a long, loose black robe that covers the entire body except the head, feet, and hands. It is the traditional Muslim dress for women in the Gulf region.

In Dubai, wearing an abaya is mandatory for all Emirati women and most Muslim expat women when in public. It must be worn over regular clothes when leaving the house. Abayas come in many different styles, but in Dubai they are usually black.

The purpose of the abaya is to conceal the shape of a woman’s body. It is designed to be modest and loose-fitting. An abaya protects a woman’s privacy and projects a humble image.

Emirati women take pride in wearing elegant, fashionable abayas. The fabric can be simple cotton or a luxurious material like silk. Abayas are often decorated with embroidery, sequins, crystals, or lace. They may have long sleeves or cap sleeves.

The abaya is part of local culture and national dress. For Emirati women, it symbolizes faith, tradition, and UAE identity. expats also wear it out of respect for local values. Police in Dubai enforce abaya wearing and can stop women without one.

Headscarves

In Dubai and the UAE, headscarves and hair covering is enforced in certain situations and locations. The type of head covering expected depends on the situation:

  • In government buildings, schools, hospitals, and other official spaces, women are expected to wear a shayla or head scarf that covers the head and wraps under the chin. Often a more formal style of headscarf is required, not just a loose hijab.
  • At mosques and other places of worship, women must cover their head with a headscarf or shayla. Many mosques may require a more formal headscarf or even an abaya during prayers.
  • On public beaches, headscarves are not required, however at hotel beaches and pool areas, a headscarf may be required in and around the facilities.
  • In shopping malls and restaurants, headscarves are not mandated, but loose scarves are commonly worn.
  • For exercise classes, sports, and other active endeavors, a headscarf is not required, but a majority of women will wear one during the activity.

The main rule of thumb is that in public places, women are expected to have their head and hair covered. The exception is public beaches and pools. Failure to comply with headscarf guidelines could result in fines or being asked to leave the premises, especially in government facilities, schools, mosques, and formal locations. Most Emirati women and female residents wear headscarves anytime they are out in public as a cultural practice.

Women Dress Code in Dubai

Tops

  • Acceptable tops:
    • Shirts, blouses, and sweaters that fully cover the abdomen and cleavage. Sleeveless tops are permitted as long as they have a high neckline and cover the shoulders.
    • T-shirts are acceptable as long as they are not tight, sheer or revealing. Graphic tees are allowed as long as the graphics are not offensive.
    • Camisoles and tank tops can be worn underneath other tops or jackets.
  • Unacceptable tops:
    • Halter tops, tube tops, crop tops, and anything that exposes the midriff or cleavage.
    • See-through, mesh, or sheer fabric tops.
    • Spaghetti straps and off-the-shoulder tops.
    • Tight or bodycon tops.
    • Graphic tees with offensive images or language.
  • General guidelines:
    • Tops should not be too tight or form-fitting.
    • Cleavage, belly button, and lower back should be fully covered.
    • For Emirati women, tops should cover past the hip area.
    • Thicker or opaque fabrics are recommended over sheer and see-through materials.

Dresses and Skirts

When choosing dresses and skirts in Dubai, be mindful of the length and style guidelines. The dress code requires that skirts and dresses must cover the knees. Maxi dresses and midi skirts that go past the knees or all the way to the ankles are recommended.

Avoid wearing short, tight skirts or short cocktail dresses that end above or right on the knee. Opt for modest, loose-fitting dresses and skirts instead. Slits in skirts should not be too high or revealing.

Wrap dresses, maxi dresses, long tunics over leggings, and loose flowing skirts are great options that provide enough coverage. Tight body-con skirts and dresses are not permitted, even if they are knee-length or longer.

The key is to choose dresses and skirts that are not too figure-hugging or transparent. They should conceal the shape of the body rather than cling to it. This applies to the dress material as well which should not be too thin or see-through.

When in doubt, opt for maxi or midi lengths rather than short skirts or mini dresses. Loose, flowy styles in opaque, non-see-through fabrics are ideal for dressing modestly yet fashionably in Dubai.

Pants

Though dressing modestly is the norm, pants are generally acceptable for women to wear in Dubai as long as they are loose, cover the ankles, and are worn with a top that covers the hips and buttocks. When it comes to pants, the focus is more on looseness and coverage rather than on the type of bottom garment itself.

Some guidelines include:

  • Avoid tight, skinny, or figure-hugging pants. Opt for a straight or wide-legged style.
  • Pants should be opaque and not sheer.
  • Make sure pants are long enough to cover ankles. Capris or cropped pants that expose the ankles are not permitted.
  • Don’t wear leggings as pants – leggings should be worn underneath a dress or long tunic.
  • Sweatpants, jeans, and trousers are all permitted as long as they are loose and modest rather than tight.
  • Pay attention to coverage on top – wear pants with a longer tunic, top, or jacket that covers the hips and buttocks.
  • Pants with sheer panels or see-through cutouts should be avoided.

When in doubt, choose looser, opaque pants with full coverage to meet cultural expectations for modesty. Pay attention to the top worn with pants as well. As long as pants are not tight or revealing in cut, they are appropriate for women to wear in most areas of Dubai.

Swimwear

Women must be mindful of dress code rules when wearing swimwear in public areas in Dubai. Swimwear is regulated at hotel pools, beaches, water parks, and other public places.

The key rules for women’s swimwear in Dubai are:

  • Bikinis are allowed at hotel pools and beaches. However, bikinis should not be too revealing, such as thong or micro bikinis. Most hotels will have guidelines on appropriate swimwear.
  • One-piece swimsuits are generally recommended over bikinis at water parks and public beaches for modesty. Tankinis (two-piece suits with a tank top) are also suitable.
  • Swimwear is prohibited at public parks and on non-beach streets. At hotel beaches, changing rooms are provided to allow switching to and from swimwear.
  • While sunbathing, women may wear bikinis but should cover up with shorts, skirts or dresses when walking around hotel pool and beach areas.
  • Swimwear must be worn only for swimming and sunbathing. Resorts do not allow walking around in just swimwear or dripping wet bikinis.
  • Swimwear is only permitted in designated swimming areas. Wearing just a bikini at a mall beach club or restaurant is prohibited.
  • When in doubt, err on the side of modesty. If swimwear appears inappropriate, lifeguards or staff may request covering up with other clothing.

The dress code for women’s swimwear aims to balance beach culture with local sensibilities. With some care and common sense, female travelers can pick swimwear that allows enjoying beaches and pools while respecting local norms.

In Public Spaces

In public spaces like malls, hotels, and restaurants, modest dress is expected but the rules are not as strict as in government buildings or religious sites. Women are not required to wear an abaya or headscarf, but should avoid showing too much skin or wearing tight, revealing clothing.

  • In malls, fitted pants, dresses, and skirts that cover the knees are usually acceptable. Low cut tops that show cleavage should be avoided.
  • Some family-friendly restaurants allow shorts and sleeveless tops, but it’s safest to wear pants or knee-length skirt. Cover bare shoulders with a shawl or jacket if needed.
  • At hotels, especially hotels catering to tourists, Western swimwear is allowed at hotel pools and beaches. But a modest coverup and shorts/skirt are required in hotel restaurants and lobbies.
  • If unsure what to wear, avoid anything too tight, sheer, or that reveals too much skin. Err on the conservative side. Carry a scarf or shawl to cover up more when needed.

The dress code is more relaxed and flexible for tourists in public spaces than for local women. But moderate, loose, conservative clothing that covers knees and cleavage is the safest choice in public. Showing respect for local culture ensures a more comfortable experience.

Enforcement

While Dubai is generally tolerant of foreigners, authorities do enforce dress codes, especially in more conservative areas outside central Dubai. Under the UAE penal code, violators can face fines of up to 5,000 AED (around $1,360) or a one-month jail sentence for gross indecency.

Women in places like shopping malls may be asked to modify their outfits if deemed inappropriate. In public beaches and hotel pools, improper swimwear could result in denied entry. Repeat offenders risk being put on a watch list.

The dress code is enforced more strictly during the holy month of Ramadan with extra patrols monitoring clothing. Most expats and tourists comply with social customs out of respect. Police tend to initially issue warnings to foreigners before resorting to legal punishments.

Overall, Dubai aims for modest dress but is not rigid like neighbouring emirate Sharjah. With some common sense and cultural awareness, visitors can avoid running afoul of decency laws. As a modern metropolis dependent on tourism, Dubai officials enforce dress codes moderately.

Changes

In recent years, Dubai has begun to relax its dress code laws for women as part of a broader effort to increase tourism and align more with Western values. In 2008, tourists were told they could wear bikinis on public beaches, a major departure from previous standards. In 2020, the government announced that female visitors will no longer be required to wear an abaya robe, as long as their outfit is “decent and respectful.”

The reforms have sparked debate within the United Arab Emirates. Some Emiratis welcome the modernization and see the dress code as outdated. But more conservative citizens argue the changes go against local values and traditions. It remains to be seen how far Dubai will go in relaxing restrictions on women’s attire.

In the future, Dubai could opt to make the abaya optional rather than required in public places. However, a full Western-style dress code for locals is unlikely anytime soon. The dress code is intertwined with local views on morality, religion, and gender roles. Significant reforms would require shifts in social attitudes that tend to happen gradually. For now, incremental changes balanced with careful sensitivity to Emirati cultural norms seems the most plausible path forward.

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