Lewd Leggings and Other Qatar World Cup Woes

Qatar and I finally agree on something: Leggings are NOT pants.
Source: Twitter

Qatar and I finally agree on something: Leggings are NOT pants.

A new campaign in the notoriously conservative country urges tourists to "Reflect Your Respect" of local customs by abiding by Qatar's strict dress code. Campaign flyers detail acceptable dress for both men and women as covering shoulders and knees.

The campaign was started in 2012 by female activists in anticipation of the influx of Westerners for the 2022 World Cup in Doha. Its initial emphasis on the slogan "One of Us" seemed to alienate expats, who make up 85 percent of Qatar's population. So it will re-launch in June with the increased emphasis on respect; women and children plan to hand out flyers, chocolates, flowers and shawls in public places to raise awareness in a more inclusive way.

Reaction to the campaign has been mixed, with some appreciating the cordial request to observe Qatari culture and others resenting its implications. Personally, I'm all for respecting local traditions -- as a tourist, you should understand that you're a guest in another people's land. (New Yorkers know this better than anybody: We'd be the first to tell you you're violating sidewalk etiquette, and we definitely wouldn't give you candy while doing so, unless we were throwing it at you to get you to move.)

But when it comes to rules on modesty and dress, especially as dictated by Islamic law, Westerners get bent out of shape over their supposedly oppressive and subjugating role and uneven application to men and women. That's why the conversation around observing this particular custom has been more heated and emotional than that around, say, not speaking English in France.

Stacks on stacks of books have been written attempting to apply various factions of feminist theory to the observance of modesty by Muslim women. Of these, Saba Mahmood's "Politics of Piety" does an admirable job of confronting liberal feminists with their own paternalism in denying Muslim women's agency in their choice to wear veils. It's hard for Western women to reconcile their culturally specific concept of freedom with the inability to wear a tank top.

At the same time, this discussion is coming at a time when American society is particularly sensitive to women's issues and the role that notions of modesty, or the lack thereof, play in perpetuating our "rape culture." All women -- #YesAllWomen -- are told we invite unwanted stares and harassment by dressing a certain way, but not all women's solution to this is a Femen protest. Again, we're guilty of superimposing our interpretive lens on the laws and practices of another country, even one with such an awful human rights record as Qatar. (According to Human Rights Watch, the country has no laws criminalizing domestic violence and publishes no data on the issue.)

It's within this context that the debate over Qatar's modesty campaign is happening, and we should be conscious of how our Western bias colors the conversation. But from a purely practical standpoint, this campaign is a mistake. In addition to the expats who make up the majority of the population, drawing attention to the restrictive dress code only serves to alienate the swaths of tourists the country ostensibly hoped to attract by hosting the World Cup. The flyers seem to softly urge visitors to observe the customs, but they also point to the specific laws that make the dress code seem like more than just a mere suggestion. While it doesn't specifically mention clothing requirements, Article 57 of the Qatari Constitution states:

The respect of the Constitution, compliance with the laws issued by Public Authority, abiding by public order and morality, observing national traditions and established customs is a duty of all who reside in the State of Qatar or enter its territory.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs further clarifies what this means with regard to dress for all visitors or residents:

It is expected that you wear decent clothes and women should avoid wearing any garments that are too tight, too short or translucent such as mini-skirts or sleeveless dresses. Both men and women should also avoid walking around in their swimming suits away from beaches or swimming pools.

In case there's any doubt, the flyers also include Article 290 of Qatar's penal code:

Whoever makes any gesture, recites songs, utters indecent phrases, or does any obscene act by any means in or near any public place, shall be punished with imprisonment for a period not exceeding six months, and with fine not exceeding three thousand Riyals or with any of these penalties.

That doesn't quite have the same welcoming ring to it as "I Heart Doha."

If anything, the Reflect Your Respect campaign just reflects how unprepared Qatar is to host a major international sports event. In addition to falling behind on infrastructure and promulgating the deaths of migrant workers, the country isn't ready to adjust to a steady flow of probably drunk, definitely rowdy soccer fans who aren't used to being told to keep their shirts on.

Umm Abdullah, spokeswoman for the campaign, told Doha News that locals already avoid public places because of the immodest dress of expats. "People say they don't meet enough Qatari people, but this is because we don't want go to these places and see these things," she said. "Our kids as well, we don't want them to end up imitating this -- we want to preserve our traditions and our values ... we have the right to go to hospitals, to the market, to the malls, to the beach, without seeing these things."

Abdullah is absolutely correct: Qataris have the right to preserve their culture and not be confronted with a constant threat to their tradition of modesty. If that's the case, though, Abdullah should ask her government why it's spending $20 billion on tourism infrastructure -- not to mention millions in alleged bribes to win the World Cup bid -- to attract visitors who will undoubtedly take issue with these restrictions, whether it's culturally insensitive or not. Part of becoming a hub of international travel is adjusting to the demands of an increasingly multicultural environment. A historically insular region, the Middle East is becoming a burgeoning travel destination, but it's places such as Dubai and Oman that are viewed as more liberal and relaxed that are leading the trend.

Qatar went through a lot to secure the World Cup, and in theory boost its tourism profile. The country and its people need to prepare for what that means in practice.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.