Moving to a Muslim Developing country (where it can get really friggin’ HOT!) has posed many challenges for me. One of these that caused me a lot of concern when I was first preparing for my first trip out here back in June was how to dress here. I had no idea before I came out how much I would be expected to cover myself up, 1st as a woman, and 2nd as a western woman. Djibouti is less conservative than, say, the Middle East or even some other parts of Africa (from what I hear). Women don’t have to wear an Abaya (the all black dress & scarves that cover all but the eyes – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abaya), and they tend to wear a lot of color here. They favor long, layered dresses that cover them completely from neck to feet, and scarves or shawls that they sometimes wear over their heads to cover their hair, but that they often just have draped over their shoulders so that they can cover if need be. Patterns and colors are bright and happy, for the most part. And the fabrics are often decorated with embroidery, cutouts, or beading.
Western women visiting here aren’t expected to adopt the traditional Muslim dress, but it is best to be respectful and keep somewhat covered up. My general rules are as follows: no cleavage-revealing tops; no tank tops without a cardigan, shrug or something to cover the shoulders; no shorts; no skirts that don’t at least hit the knee (preferably below the knee, even when you’re sitting); and, nothing too body-conscious. Basically, nothing at all revealing. My work involves interaction with the community here, and the last thing I would want is to offend people with my dress before I even open my mouth. And, since it’s a small country and everyone seems to know everyone else, I always assume that I could run into someone I might work with at any time, so I don’t stray much from these rules even to go out at night. It doesn’t seem worth risking losing someone’s respect because they’ve either seen me or heard from someone who has seen me dressed in a way that they find offensive. Even though western women are seen as almost a “third gender” in the sense that they are allowed to take certain liberties (or at least it’s tolerated if they do so) that local women can’t, it’s best to be cautious about flaunting your western attitudes if you want people to be receptive to your ideas and opinions. Everything is a balancing act, right? You have to weigh your desire to wear a short skirt and tube top against your desire to accomplish your professional goals, and maybe some people would fall more towards the tube top side of things, but my scale tips in favor of accomplishing my goals!
Now, you might be wondering about male dress as well. The men can often be seen, in the professional environment, wearing slacks and a short-sleeved, button-down shirt. I’m told that you only wear a suit if you’re meeting the President of Djibouti; otherwise it’s not necessary. On the street, in addition to the men in button-down shirts and slacks, you see khakis and polo shirts, as well as t-shirts and long fabric, wrapped into an ankle-length skirt type thing that is tied at the waist (kind of like a sarong – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarong, where they even show a Somali man wearing a macawii – which is apparently what the sarong type long skirt thingy is called) and folded in such a way as to not reveal any
leg from waist to ankle. You don’t see a lot of men in shorts (except for the French Legionnaires, whose summer uniform includes very short and usually very tight, khaki shorts – I couldn’t find any pictures of their uniform online that do it justice, though the picture on the left shows what the shirt & hat look like, but look at the image here: http://www.hobbylinc.com/htm/acy/acy1381.htm on the right in the picture, and that about does it – though those shorts look looser than most I’ve seen here…..) It has taken some time for me to get used to the idea of men in skirts, but it now seems normal, and actually makes sense. The fully-adjustable nature of these tied-on skirts leads to not requiring any tailoring in the case of any weight gain or loss, or in the case of younger boys, growth spurts. What I haven’t entirely gotten used to, however, is the fact that men will just untie and readjust their sarongs while walking down the street, or standing out on a corner. They seem to manage not show any skin while doing so, but it’s still strange to watch someone so publicly readjust their clothing, especially when it is so unstructured. My western upbringing leads me to expect people to try to hide from the public eye while doing something of that nature, but that’s just not the norm here.
Now, we’ve discussed daytime and professional dress – you might be wondering how to dress for a night out on the town. The dress code in the clubs is not nearly as strict as what you see out on the streets during the day. The traditional Muslim garb is largely abandoned in favor of not always well-fitting skimpy tops, tight jeans or booty shorts, or slinky dresses. It certainly makes the people-watching in the clubs quite interesting! As a foreigner, however, it is not advisable to go too skimpy even with your club-wear, or you will be on the receiving end of comments or harassment, or might even be confused for a “working girl”. Assuming that’s not what you want, I’d advise any woman visiting this area not to dress much differently for the nightlife than you would to walk around – same amount of coverage, but with more of a casual style seems to be the accepted approach for most of the western women here.
And before I sign off, let me just say thanks to 2 friends: NA for helping me Muslim-appropriate shop before I came out here, and RR, who gave me very welcomed advice on how much women should cover up, at least in the parts of Africa she was familiar with. Thanks, ladies! As usual, fashion is more complicated for women than men, so guidance from girlfriends is always welcomed!!
Fashion-appropriately yours (I hope!),