Women in Dubai will often cover their faces if they are too beautiful. Picture: Getty.
Women in Dubai will often cover their faces if they are too beautiful. Picture: Getty.

Secret life of Muslim women

IT'S the city selling itself as a modern, sophisticated and welcoming spot for Western tourists.

Although I'd never before stepped foot out of Dubai's airport - which is one of the largest in the world and a pit stop on many international routes - I knew that heat, sand and (hopefully) limitless airconditioning waited outside the terminal doors.

Dubai had previously been a stopover en route to London or Europe. The city had never drawn me to stay longer, except for the lure of Dubai Mall - the biggest shopping complex in the world - and perhaps the falafel I'd read could be found in Old Dubai.

But this time, I'd be spending four days in the rapidly expanding city of 3.05 million residents.

I’d only ever stopped over in Dubai, but never stepped foot out of the airport. Picture: AFP.
I’d only ever stopped over in Dubai, but never stepped foot out of the airport. Picture: AFP.

I'd been given a bit of intel about what to expect as a traveller visiting during Ramadan in June - the ninth month in the Islamic Calendar when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk for the entire holy month.

While more than 14 million visitors flock to the Emirati city each year, Ramadan is often considered the quieter time for both tourists and locals alike.

I'd been told to dress modestly (knees and shoulders covered), that eating (anything) or drinking (even water) in public places was forbidden throughout the holy month, and that alcohol - if you knew where to find it - wouldn't come cheap.

I'd also read about the safety within the city itself.

For tourists, Dubai has been rated as one of the safest cities in the UAE. According to the data compiled by Numbeo about the world Crime Index Rate, it placed near the top out of 288 cities at 279th.

But I'd also read that travelling to the city as a woman is much more difficult and stressful than it is for a man. When it comes to locals and tourists, misconceptions and stereotypes exist on both sides - which can be confusing for first-time travellers.

Ramadan often means the city of Dubai is a little quieter than usual. Picture: Marka/UIG via Getty Images.
Ramadan often means the city of Dubai is a little quieter than usual. Picture: Marka/UIG via Getty Images.

Lonely Planet reports that foreigners sometimes assume that "all Middle Eastern women are veiled, repressed victims, while some locals see Western women as sex-obsessed and immoral".

That difference between cultures is often based around different attitudes to relationships between men and women.

Premarital sex - or any sex outside marriage - is illegal, although, it still happens. Emirati women are expected to be virgins when they marry, and, according to Lonely Planet, "a family's reputation can rest upon this point".

"The presence of foreign women provides, in the eyes of some Arab men, a chance to get around these norms with ease and without consequences - hence the occasional hassle foreign women experience," according to the guide book.

Two young Muslim women I interviewed said the biggest misconception about their religion is that woman are oppressed.
Two young Muslim women I interviewed said the biggest misconception about their religion is that woman are oppressed.

So what's the reality?

As part of my experience in Dubai, I was given the chance to talk with a group of young Muslim women about life in the evolving city, education, family life, marriage and religion as a millennial.

In a city where it can be hard to get past the glitzy surface and where only 10 per cent of residents were born and raised here - it offered a rare insight into local life.

Fatma and Sara, both 21, spoke of how they were both studying at university - one at a college in Dubai, the other at a campus in Ohio in the US.

As we ate breakfast together I wanted to discuss the stereotypes and misconceptions that often followed young women like them - especially with one relocating to the American mid West.

Born in Dubai, Fatma was raised alongside an older brother by both her father and mother. She was intelligent, funny and honest about her religion, acknowledging it often comes with stigmas around the treatment of women.

Fatma, who said she was the only woman in her all-male college studying civil engineering, spoke freely of her religion, dating and her experiences of being a Muslim woman in Dubai.

"It's not that different being the only girl [in class]," she explained. "I grew up in my family with boys, so I was comfortable.

"My dad and brother taught me self defence just in case … and I have some cousins there too, so they keep watch over me."

Fatma, who wears a sheila, says it is up to her what she wears in public.
Fatma, who wears a sheila, says it is up to her what she wears in public.

Fatma, who says she will only 'date' the man she intends to marry - explained how she trusts her parents to make the right decision when it comes to a husband.

"For us, when the guy sees you, or maybe the mother or sister … they ask around [about you] and find out about your family," she explained.

"If they like what they hear, the boy and the girl meet. If everything is OK, the engagement period is set and that is the dating period. But they [the couple] have a chaperone with them, so nothing can happen.

"[For example] if I am with my fiancé, I have to have a man with me like my brother or nephew, or his sister, so we are not alone."

Sara, who is studying public affairs in Ohio, said she never wants to date, nor "believes" in it - which is a different experience to the majority of her non-Muslim peers at college.

"Going to America is very different to other people," she explained. "But it has been about discovering myself as a Muslim, which I am very proud of.

Fatma and Sara said lingerie, gold, makeup and shoes were popular among Muslim women. Picture: Romano Cagnoni/Getty Images
Fatma and Sara said lingerie, gold, makeup and shoes were popular among Muslim women. Picture: Romano Cagnoni/Getty Images

"I am prouder of it now than I've ever been in 21 years. I'm not ashamed of it, I like having my hijab on and I like being covered regardless of what anyone says.

"With dating and drinking, I've never had an interest in being involved in that. I'm not used to it and I've never tried it, and it's against my religion.

"I don't believe in dating. Why would I waste my time with someone I know I'm not going to spend the rest of my life with?

"Instead of doing that, I just want to meet the right person, and get married to that person."

Fatma said that before the engagement period - both man and woman reveal what they'd like in a husband or wife before things become official with marriage.

"We will flirt a little bit, talk on the phone, but you always have a chaperone," she explained. "So if we start getting too close, or touchy, someone will stop us. But it's forbidden to force a marriage … that's a big sin."

Both women, who met with me at The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, wore a shayla (headscarf) and abaya (clothing). We ate figs and Kunafeh, and sipped Arabic coffee and rosewater.

They explained that despite what they often read about their religion - it's their choice how much of their body is covered.

"The headscarf is decided by the girl when she reaches puberty," Fatma explained.

"Usually covering the face is about beauty. Some girls are very, very beautiful, and don't want people to give them the 'evil eye' or be jealous of them. So they cover their face, because they are beautiful."

Fatma says men will often want a wife who has a college education. Picture: Godong/Universal Images.
Fatma says men will often want a wife who has a college education. Picture: Godong/Universal Images.

Fatma explained that a woman who may have an abnormally beautiful voice will also take measures to conceal other parts of her identity from the public.

"A woman who has a very beautiful voice, not to tempt the men when she goes out … wears an anklet with a bell, that means she won't talk to you," she said.

"She will have someone who talks for her."

This month, Denmark became the latest European country to dictate what a woman can and cannot wear.

Its parliament passed a new law imposing a penalty of 1,000 Kroner (AU$208) on anyone who wears a garment that hides the face in public.

But Fatma explained that while Dubai was safe - and she had never experienced any encounter to question that - covering up for her was a measure that eliminated unwanted male attention.

"Men are men," she said. "Muslim, Christian. They see something [revealing] and they will think bad, dirty thoughts. It's in them, they can't help it.

"That's why we wear an Abaya in a bigger size than us, so it won't stick [to our body]. And so men when they see us, they try to imagine how our body looks, but they don't have anything to show them.

"Covering ourselves is for us, but also for them. So they don't get any sense from imaging dirty stuff."

There are cases where Dubai authorities have prosecuted Western tourists who were actually victims of rape and sexual assault in the city.

In 2016, amid huge international outcry at her arrest, officials dropped charges against a British woman who was facing jail after being gang-raped in a hotel room.

After reporting the crime to police, the woman was accused of having sex outside of marriage, a crime punishable by jail time, flogging and even stoning to death. She was eventually freed.

Alicia Gali was raped after having her drink spiked in the United Arab Emirates. After going to the police she was jailed for eight months for adultery Pic Jamie Hanson
Alicia Gali was raped after having her drink spiked in the United Arab Emirates. After going to the police she was jailed for eight months for adultery Pic Jamie Hanson

Similarly, Australian woman Alicia Gali spent eight months in a Dubai jail after she was drugged and violently raped, and sentenced to a year in prison for having extramarital sex.

Radha Stirling from Detained in Dubai said such situations were common in the Gulf states.

"Dubai struggles to maintain its promoted reputation of being tolerant, modern, progressive and focused on happiness and positivity, while it regularly victimises women for reporting crime," Ms Stirling said.

* Fatma and Sara asked for their surnames to be withheld from the article.

Vanessa Brown travelled to Dubai as a guest of Dubai Tourism.



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