Strictest dress codes – 5 countries with fashion police

dress code countries

Earlier this week, the “Burqa Ban” went into effect in France. Since passing into law, several burqa draped women have already been arrested, and the symbolic law is causing an uproar among the Muslim population of France and beyond. However, France is not the only country with authoritative garment laws. Many countries possess laws that limit what citizens and visitors are allowed to wear.

According to Foreign Policy magazine, these five countries have some of the strictest dress code laws in the world. The list includes countries from three continents, though France is the lone western world inclusion. It is odd that a country known for its fashion houses and pioneering designers is also home to such an autocratic fashion law. I would expect this sort of posturing from the American South, but clothing oppression along the Champs-Élysées seems a bit misplaced.France – Ban on burqas and niqabs
In April 2011, France’s law against burqas and niqabs went into effect. Essentially, the law is a ban on the traditional female Muslim dress and allows a police officer to verbally request removal of the veil before escorting any violator to a police station for ID verification and removal. Gadling blogger Meg Nesterov covered all of the details in a post earlier this week. The fine is 150 Euros for a first time offender and 30,000 Euros for a male that forces a woman to wear a burqa or niqab. I believe the excessiveness of the 30,000 Euro fine reveals the true intent of the law, but to fight the perception of oppression across cultures with oppression is a bizarre strategy.

Saudi Arabia – Ban on bare skin and cross-dressing
The old Kingdom of Saud has always been a leader in fashion constriction. Saudi Arabia is home to some of the strictest social laws on the planet, many applying exclusively to women. This separation of legal restrictions by sex seems austere by western standards, and though every country governs from a different cultural perspective, Saudi Arabia seems excessively sexist – placing 129 out of 134 countries in the 2010 Global Gender Gap Report. Aside from requiring a male guardian, a Saudi Woman must also wear a niqab and abaya in public as to not expose bare skin. Men also have restrictions – they are not allowed to cross-dress.

dress code countriesBhutan – Required gho and kira in public
Considered one of the happiest countries on the planet, Bhutan calculates its output in GNH – Gross National Happiness. While it is rare to read a word on Bhutan without being reintroduced to this policy on happiness, there are also other, less known measures in place to maintain Bhutanese culture. For example, all Bhutanese citizens must adhere to a strict dress code. In public, men must wear a gho – a knee length robe, and women must wear a kimono known as a kira. The dress code is older than the current kingdom and is known as Driglam Namzha.

North Korea – No pants for ladies and hair cuts for man
The hermit kingdom is one of the least visited countries on the planet. The lack of outside influences has bolstered the frozen in time North Korean culture. North Korea has a dead president, a money-pit ghostscraper, and laws governing a man’s maximum hair length. In North Korea, men are supposed to trim their hair every 15 days, and older men are given leniency so that their hair can grow long enough to cover bald spots. While most men are allotted a maximum hair length of two inches, fifty year old men and older can grow their hair an additional 3/4 inch. Women are not permitted to wear pants, and if an infraction occurs, the pant wearing offender faces a stint at one of the North’s horrendous labor camps.

Sudan – No make-up for men and lashes for pant-wearing women
In Sudan, women are punished for wearing pants with lashes and a hefty fine. Sudanese public decency laws are extremely strict and bear the beliefs of the predominantly Arab north. The tumultuous country is home to violent religious differences. With almost 600 ethnicities and a serious wedge between the Muslim north and Christian south, Sudan has been a poster child for racial intolerance for decades. While women are prohibited from wearing trousers, men too have laws governing their behavior. Last December, seven men were arrested and charged with public indecency for wearing makeup at a fashion show.

flickr images via Ranoush & Jadis 1958

France’s burqa ban goes into effect

burqa banToday France has taken a controversial move and instated a burqa ban, aimed at the traditional religious covering worn by conservative Muslim women. The ban will potentially affect up to 2,000 women who wear a full-face veil in public, though it is unclear how the enforcement will work as police cannot remove the veil. Women who refuse to lift the burqa or niqab may be taken to a police station for an identity check, threatened with a 150 euro fine, or forced to attend “re-education” classes. Men who force women to wear the veil will face a 30,000 euro fine and up to a year in jail. So far only a few women have been arrested for protesting the ban near Paris’ Notre Dame cathedral.


Jacques Myard, a Parliament member and supporter of the ban said “The face is a dignity of a person. The face is your passport. So when you refuse me to see you, I am a victim.” France has the highest Muslim population in Europe, estimated between four and six million, though only a few thousand women wear the full-face veil. Belgium has passed a similar law but hasn’t enforced it, and the Netherlands is considering a ban as well.

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The burqa and niqab: can travelers get used to anything? Should they?

burqa, burka, niqab, Somaliland, somaliland
Travel broadens the mind, at least for most people. As we explore different cultures and beliefs we see that for the most part they’re OK. While there are always local customs we just can’t follow, in general the more we travel, the more accepting we become.

But how accepting should we get? I’ve traveled extensively in the Muslim world and I’ve yet to figure out exactly how I feel about the burqa and niqab, two types of female Islamic clothing that cover the face. For the vast majority of the world’s population, the face is a key to identity. We look at the face to tell what a person is thinking and feeling. It’s how we spot friends and enemies at a distance. To see a covered face makes many people suspicious. In most cultures, it means the person has something to hide.

Here in Europe a debate is raging over whether the face veil should be banned. Some politicians say it’s oppressive and against Western values, while others defend it as part of a cultural heritage that needs to be tolerated in a free society. One thing these pundits have in common is that they talk about women who cover their faces, but very few actually talk with them. Regarding the burqa ban in France, one female friend quipped, “It’s just another case of men telling women what to wear.” Here’s a video from the BBC program Newsnight that interviews Muslim women both for and against veils.

This video makes two important points: that opinion is divided in the Muslim community over face covering, and that there are thinking, educated people under those veils.As a Western man I haven’t had many opportunities to talk with covered women, but when traveling in Somaliland I got to talk to a few niqabis. While talking with them I discovered that their personalities began to emerge. I also kept a lot of eye contact since there was nothing else to look at. The eyes are always expressive. Among niqabis they’re even more so.

Fellow travel writer Lara Dunston taught in Abu Dhabi for many years and noticed the same thing. The veil didn’t stop her from getting to know people as individuals. She even became able to recognize people just from their eyes. She says the vast majority of her students cover by choice. In the book From My Sisters’ Lips, Muslim convert Na’ima bint Robert talks about why she chose to cover her face, and interviews others who made the same choice. Central to their decision was the desire to be known for what they think, not how they look. They see the veil as accentuating a person’s identity rather than hiding it.

burqaIf only it were that straightforward. In many places it’s not individual choice but social pressure or even force of law that makes women cover their faces. Saudi Arabia, which is our ally because we need their oil and they need our weapons, has been instrumental in the global spread of radical Islam. For example, they’re building beautiful mosques and madrasas in the Muslim regions of Ethiopia in order to change what has been a bastion of liberal Islam. I’ll never forget passing through one village where the only stone building, and the only one that had more than one storey, was a Saudi-built mosque. Walking along the road in the noonday sun was a woman in a niqab with a huge bundle of firewood over her back. I was hot just standing there. I can’t imagine how she must have felt.

Take this woman: uneducated, almost certainly illiterate, who’s probably never been outside her own region, and introduce her to a Saudi cleric with his nice car and clothes and education, and he tells her she needs to cover her face or Allah will be angry and her neighbors will think she’s a slut. What’s she going to do? That’s not a choice; that’s oppression pure and simple.

In a response to the controversial “Just Say No To Burqas” mural in Australia, a Muslim activist friend of mine Asra Nomani said, “‘Say No To Burqas,’ says ‘no’ to not only burqas but the interpretation of Islam that says that women are too sexy for their faces and have to cover up to be ‘good Muslims.’ It’s important that we reject the interpretation of Islam that sanctions burqas. One girl who had to wear a burqa in my village in India asked me, ‘What’s it like to feel the sun shine on your face?'”

Asra makes a good point that the burqa is only one interpretation of Islam. The Koran and Hadith say that both men and women should dress modestly. They say nothing about women bundling themselves up from head to toe in yards of cloth.

An educated debate about this issue is becoming increasingly important as Western society becomes more multicultural. It’s becoming more important to me personally. I spend every summer in Oxford. Among the many Muslims there, most women wear headscarves, something that I barely notice anymore. A small minority of women wear the niqab, including a local pharmacist. Last year we were in the park and my son, then four years old, saw one of the mothers wearing a niqab.

“Why is she hiding her face?” he asked.

“Because she wants to for her religion,” I said.

“SHE SHOULD TAKE IT OFF!” he said in that typical child voice that carries for miles.

“Only if she wants to,” I replied rather lamely.

I couldn’t think of a better answer. I still can’t.