Blog

Rest Easy, Dubai. The Writer from The New Yorker Really Wanted To Go Shopping.

I love a thoughtful, well-written article that presents an original point-of-view and makes me think.

Andrew Marantz is a writer for The New Yorker who stopped in Dubai on a 12-hour layover on his way from New York to Sri Lanka with his wife a few years ago. Recently, he wrote an article about his time in Dubai titled “Dubai, the World’s Vegas.” He describes visits to two malls, Ski Dubai, and the top of Burj Khalifa. The essay is supplemented with photographs by a photographer named Ben Thomas.

Yikes. After all these years, was Dubai still being compared to Las Vegas? It was a cultural time warp of an essay. It reminded me almost immediately of another widely circulated article on Dubai from many years ago. Originality, it appeared, was not Mr. Marantz’s objective.

I pulled up A.A. Gill’s now infamous piece for Vanity Fair Magazine from 2011 called “Dubai on Empty.” The similarity between the two articles is uncanny. In his opening lines, Gill references a legendary fable as a lens for understanding Dubai. “The only way to make sense of Dubai is to never forget that it isn’t real. It’s a fable, a fairy tale, like The Arabian Nights.” Marantz also makes a reference to fiction. Specifically, the fictitious life of Walter Mitty. “We passed the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo, which boasts “the world’s largest collection of sand tiger sharks!,” and a multiplex, where we considered seeing “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” before deciding that our current experience was already Mitty-esque enough.”

When Gill describes Dubai’s skyline as “the cover of a dystopian science-fiction novella,” Marantz proceeds to reprise the sentiment, adding, “The skyline, if that’s the right word for it, was garishly, unapologetically artificial. The city almost appeared to be a non-place in the literal sense, not just the anthropological sense—more like an architect’s rendering than an actual built environment.”

No article in Dubai is complete without mentioning the construction workers who have built this city. Gill describes the workers as Asian drones, who have “… the tough, downtrodden look of Communist posters from the 30s—they are both the slaves of capital and the heroes of labor.” Marantz concurs, albeit with less flair. He says, “We knew that, for many of the non-Emirati laborers who are largely invisible to the casual tourist, Dubai is worse than a non-place, closer to a dystopia.”

The collective use of identical words and ideas extends beyond publications like The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. While observations about constructions workers are legitimate, accurate, and require urgent attention and immediate rectification by authorities, it is the reduction of a dynamic and rapidly changing city to a tyrannical wonderland that peddles a “harsh form of commerce” that is so pervasive it is now officially cheesy.

Photograph of man with camels in the dessert.
Stereotypical photographs of desert dunes and camels accompanied the writer’s article for The New Yorker Magazine. Photo credit: Ben Thomas

And a cover for ulterior motives. Emirati columnist Sultan Al Qassemi wrote a thoughtful reply which he broadcast to his half-a-million strong following on Twitter. He points out, “It’s not the city’s fault that this person chose to visit two malls and a skyscraper in his multi-hour layover.” Right on. That he chose to do so is a reflection of who he is. What I got was a glimpse of a man who really, really wanted to go shopping with his wife. I have no reason to believe he is particularly cultured, or remotely interested in anything like art, history, or even Arabic food.

As a sophomore at Mount Holyoke College many years ago, I learned that Orientalism, or representations of the ‘other’ in stereotypical ways, teaches us more about the cultures that produce it than about ourselves. It is the freezing of this frame, and the multiplication of it, that underpins the success of orientalist discourse and thought. It’s objective is to validate. In this case, it was a deliberate attempt to withhold validation of what Dubai has achieved in such a short period of time. Dubai is no where near perfect, of course. That is hardly relevant. How else do you explain that most of these articles are written by people who have never stepped foot in the country, or are passing through, like Marantz?

Marantz did not bother to experience anything outside the malls because he didn’t want to. While he was successful in recycling stereotypes about Dubai, he inadvertently also reinforced a stereotype about Americans: uncomfortable venturing outside their own comfort zone and confronting the unfamiliar.

Deborah Williams, a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi, wrote an opinion piece for The National called Dubai, New York and lazy cultural stereotypes in response to his article. I would go one step further and argue it’s the continued use of cultural stereotypes that produces lazy journalism. Which makes Marantz a writer of questionable ability. His article is practically a succinct version of Gill’s, structured around the same ideas in a shockingly similar way.

So rest easy, Dubai. It’s not about you. Next time you come across an article like this – by now, you should know there will be plenty more – consider the context of the writer. Start by asking yourself what it says about them, rather than focusing on what it says about you.

The #Saltbae Phenomenon: What We Can Learn About Content Marketing From Dubai’s Social Media Sensation

If you haven’t heard of SaltBae by now, you are officially living under a rock.

Nusret Gocke, otherwise known as SaltBae on social media, is a Turkish butcher at the helm of wildly popular steakhouse Nusr-et. Reportedly born into poverty, he worked his way up in the restaurant world in pursuit of a single goal: to open and operate his own restaurant, which he achieved at the age of twenty seven.

Today, Nusr-et has five locations in Turkey, one in Dubai, one in Abu Dhabi, and soon, one in New York City, the most competitive city for food and beverage operators in the world. If he succeeds in the Big Apple, then this rags-to-riches story is one for the history books.

Not because he has consistently persevered against the odds, but because his unique social media presence helped him do so. Frankly, I can’t think of another Internet celebrity who has managed to leverage social media so successfully and capture the world’s imagination the way he has.

It started with a short video posted to Nusr-et’s Instagram page (the restaurant is spelled Nusr-et, and is a play on words: ‘et’ in Turkish means meat). It shows him slicing and salting a tender slab of meat at his restaurant in Dubai. Unsmiling and wielding a big knife, he cuts with steely precision and delicately sprinkles a handful of salt that sparkles as it cascades down his arm, some of it getting caught in his arm hair.

It has over 13.6 million views.

Ottoman steak 🔪

A post shared by Nusr_et#Saltbae (@nusr_et) on

It is food porn with all the finer points of story telling: dramatic tension, visceral resolution, and a whimsical finale. Nusret has subdued this rather large piece of meat, and if there is still any question about his ability, he reveals slick salt moves that affirm only he can do what he does. Nusret the humble Butcher is now Nusret the Boss, the undisputed scion of cool (an image he cultivates with relish).

Graphic of Nusret as The Godfather

The video went viral almost instantly and gave rise to the hashtag #Saltbae. Everyone from college students to NFL and Premier League players were copying his signature salt move in video, photo, and meme format. King Abdullah of Jordan invited Nusret to barbecue with him. A quick search on Instagram reveals more than 220,000 posts, and almost all from people who have never dined at Nusr-et. News outlets caught wind of the story, street artists painted murals, and at least one clever developer created an iPhone app with an emoji of Nusret sprinkling salt. It was all about that salt life.

Premier League player Danny Welbeck copies #Saltbae on the field

A mural of saltbae in Australia

The restaurant’s Instagram following is currently at a staggering 5.5 million and growing. That is double the combined Instagram following of celebrity chefs Mario Batali (456k) and Anthony Bourdain (2.2 million). In less than a month, #Saltbae became a household name.

I’m not a leading expert on social media strategy, but I have created and managed the marketing and digital communications for two restaurants, both my own, and learned a few things along the way. Well before Mr. Gocke became the celebrity he is today, I can tell you he was doing a lot of things right.

An active Instagram user, he had already accumulated over 100,000 followers, a large chunk after opening in Dubai. That’s a pretty big number. True, he was already a success in his native Turkey. But restaurants can have a hard time growing their following. Beautiful food photography always gets a lot of likes and eyeballs, but if that’s all you are posting it gets old pretty fast. In Dubai, the challenge is two-fold: in a market saturated with food and beverage concepts, finding a voice that resonates and rises above the noise is that much harder.

Here are the top eight ways Nusret is consistently striking social media gold:

1. He lets his personality shine on social media. One look at his Instagram page and you know you’re dealing with one flamboyant dude. He is sassy and funny, and he knows it. His social media voice is strong, unique, and confident. The best part: no other brand will be able to replicate it without looking like an obvious rip off.

Saltbae poses with a cigar in front of a photo of Fidel Castro smoking a cigar

2. He is serious about his product and shows you how. His images display the beautiful marbling and colour of his meats. Furthermore, he goes to great lengths to ensure consistency and quality by controlling the entire process. His meat is literally farm-to-table. Videos of him massaging cows may be funny, but also convey a key brand message: Nusr-et is serious about the meat it serves.

Saltbae faces a cow at his cattle farm

3. He uses the medium of video. Cisco projects that by 2019, 86% of global consumer traffic will be video, including TV, video-on-demand, and peer-to-peer networks. Internet video has an engaged and growing audience and companies not following this marketing trend will not be able to connect with audiences or expand their reach.

4. He uses the right platform for the region. Instagram is popular in the U.A.E., and king with one demographic in particular: locals, or the small Emirati population with mighty purchasing power. The UAE also has 78% smartphone penetration, the highest in the world. That means lots of well-off people taking photos and videos of products and experiences and sharing on social media. What more could a brand ask for?

Instagram has been critical to Nusret’s success online and as a business. He has succeeded in attracting locals as regular customers, so much so that he counts both the rulers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai as frequent patrons. Anyone who has lived here long enough knows there is no higher stamp of approval than a visit from a member of the ruling royal family. And, the fastest route to Instagram engagement and follows in the region.

5. He doesn’t take himself too seriously. As a former restaurant owner, I can tell you this is a rare quality in a chef. Especially a famous one. As much as I love food and appreciate the passion and drive of talented chefs, there is an annoying tendency to install them on a pedestal and give them other-worldly qualities. It’s food, guys. Not a cure for cancer. Nusret is relatable, human, and approachable, and very different from someone like chef Mario Batali who has a reputation for being arrogant. In marketing terms, there is no better strategy. Every brand strives to make a connection with their target audience on a human level.

6. He delivers on his promise. If you have the chance to dine at Nusr-et, you should. It is the best meat I have ever had. Hands down.

7. He is genuine. I was invited to dine at Nusr-et a few days after it opened. I saw the man himself, on the grill and approached cautiously to have a look. He was wearing a tight white t-shirt, a perfect tan, and a slicked back pony tail. He gave me a big smile and insisted I try a piece of his “spaghetti” – thinly sliced pieces of steak that are quickly seared on the grill. Later in the evening, he served us at our table, like he did every other guest, and insisted the ladies take photos with him. He is quirky and fun, and salts everyone’s steak table-side. You can find him at his restaurant everyday, working hard and putting in long hours. He doesn’t speak any English. But his big personality and passion for what he does breaks through the communication barrier.

8. He posts plenty of photos of smiling customers. If your product or service makes people happy, you should share that on social media. In his case, it helps that celebrities like Leonardo di Caprio enjoy his food. If you too have a celebrity clientele, that should be shared where possible.

Nusret is a big hit with locals and tourists in Dubai
How will he do in New York? Given his drive, unrelenting ambition, and ability to connect with people with such ease, I think he will take the city by storm. I for one will be following his social media closely to learn further best practices on brand content and engagement.

All images courtesy Nusr-et’s ridiculously good Instagram page

No Culture in Dubai? Why UNESCO Might Think Otherwise

Dubai has a reputation for being a fake city. A city known for the tallest building, the fastest cars, endless construction, oil riches, and fast living. A concrete jungle devoid of culture and flush with cash. Expats are quick to tell you nothing is authentic here, that the real world exists outside the country.

Could these ideas be misplaced? The UAE is in it’s infancy as a nation, but the area is not. In fact, the Arabian peninsula is home to a number of relics of the ancient world.

Which is why The National Council of Tourism and Antiquities has been busy compiling an inventory list of heritage sites for UNESCO. Included on the list is Ed-Dur, a large archeological site in the Emirate of Umm Al Quwain that predates the arrival of Islam.

Also listed is my childhood haunt and personal favourite, Khor Dubai, or Dubai Creek, and the commercial markets in it’s immediate vicinity. Dubai Creek is a natural seawater inlet of the Arabian Gulf in the heart of old Dubai. It has played a major role in the economic development of the region throughout history, and is a flourishing port of trade where the city of Dubai emerged.

Old wooden dhows, or ships, docking at Dubai Creek
Old wooden dhows, or ships, dock at Dubai Creek to offload goods
Trips to the Creek are incomplete without a jaunt through Dubai’s “City of Gold,” a historic gold market located right along the waterway. My first visit to the Gold Souk was at the age of four. While my brother and I happily ate ice cream, my grandmother, an expert haggler, carefully inspected chains of braided gold pulled from spotless glass cases. While certainly not as old as Ed-Dur, the souk has been around since the 1930’s. Many of it’s merchants have been selling gold for generations.

Emiratis make up a measly 6% of Dubai’s population. Despite tumultuous change, they celebrate deep ties to this part of the world and have a vibrant, fluid culture influenced by traders from Iran, India, and Pakistan, who still dock at the Creek. You must be willing to make the effort, once in a while, to leave the malls and look for it.

Famed New York Brunch Spot Sarabeth’s Opens in Dubai. Is This A Good Thing? 

img_6444

Earlier today, I had lunch at Burger Joint, and coffee and dessert at Sarabeth’s. If you are familiar with these names, you might assume I’m on vacation in New York.

In the last five years there has been explosive growth in Dubai’s food and beverage industry. International chains have proliferated, and many use Dubai as a launch pad to test the waters before expanding to other markets in the GCC, like Qatar, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. Shake Shack, The Cheesecake Factory, and Canadian coffee behemoth Tim Horton’s all followed this strategy.

It’s not surprising that brands are eager to enter the market. After all, consumers here wield enormous purchasing power. Nike, for example, has created the Pro Hijab to target female athletes in the GCC specifically. Disposable income is high and Emiratis travel abroad frequently throughout the year. This means exposure to the latest in luxury goods, food, beauty, and fashion. Multinational companies in the region are turning profits by capitalising on strong recognition of and demand for international brands.

What is surprising is seeing small boutique American eateries, wildly popular in their hometowns and many owner-run, spring up halfway across the world in Dubai. Burger Joint is an unassuming, low-key hotspot tucked behind a curtain in downtown New York. Tell a New Yorker the only other Burger Joint in the world is near downtown Dubai and they will probably balk in disbelief.

It’s not the only one. Neighborhood favorite Clinton Street Baking Company, famous for their fluffy and buttery pancakes, have one location in New York City – the only one in the U.S. – and two locations and a foodtruck in Dubai. Cupcake giant Magnolia Bakery has two spots in the Big Apple, and selected Dubai for expansion. Now, it’s popping up outside the Gulf. On a recent trip to Amman, I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw hoarding for Magnolia on a shop front in the centre of town. In Jordan, well beyond the confines of Dubai’s glittering malls.

Why is this? Sometimes, restaurants like Sarabeth’s, who saw their heyday in the 90’s, arrive in emerging markets to resuscitate their ailing brand and bottomline.

Secondly, wealthy investors are always on the lookout for money making opportunities. For some reason, there is a widely held belief that opening a restaurant in Dubai is a good investment. Anything that generates buzz abroad, the theory goes, will also be popular here, even the smaller independent brands.

The range of dining options is indeed impressive. Visitors are always shocked to see just how many restaurants exist, and keep opening, in Dubai.

But there is a cost. Dubai now faces a conundrum: an ambitious city attracting the world, and in doing so, pushing out homegrown talent.

In a saturated marketplace, local restauranteurs face an uphill battle. In order to be truly successful in the food and beverage space, Dubai needs to stop importing brands, both known and unknown, and start supporting and creating more of their own. They do exist, but not nearly at the level needed to compete globally.

 

10 Tips For Visiting Legoland at Dubai Parks and Resorts

I love theme parks. I love roller coaster rides and funnel cake dusted with icing sugar. My last theme park adventure was almost fifteen years ago, at Canada’s Wonderland in Toronto.

Until very recently, theme parks were a rarity in Dubai. I remember going to Al Nasr Leisureland as a kid in the 80’s. It was small, and the rides were pretty basic, but for a 6-year-old in a small town it was heaven.

Dubai depends on tourists, and it is actively positioning itself as a family-friendly tourist destination. To achieve this objective, Dubai has built an enormous property called Dubai Parks and Resorts.

I heard of the opening but did not know much about it, except that there would be something called Bollywood Parks. I did not know there is a Legoland, or a waterpark, or the enormous scale of the site.

Dubai Parks and Resorts is the largest multi-themed leisure and entertainment complex in the Middle East. It consists of three separate theme parks, a water park, a themed retail and dining destination called Riverland, and much more spread over 30 million square feet. A fourth theme park, Six Flags Dubai, will be added in 2019. In other words, it is mind-boggling in size, far bigger than Canada’s Wonderland.

Legoland Dubai and Riverland opened first in October 2016, followed by Bollywood Parks, Legoland Waterpark, and Motiongate. Each theme park has different areas inside it, with restaurants, rides, games, and a host of guest services. I am convinced Dubai residents still do not have information about this incredible entertainment juggernaut. Beyond the official opening there has been little in the way of marketing.

Map of Dubai Parks and Resorts
Map courtesy Emirates 24/7
My 3-year-old niece was visiting from Singapore over the weekend and my brother was keen to take her to Legoland. They stayed at Anantara The Palm, which offered a 2-for-1 deal on tickets to Legoland and a free shuttle ride to the Parks. We decided to go on Sunday when there was a break in the rainy weather.

We arrived at 2pm and were transported from the parking lot to Legoland by tram. The park is extremely well organised, clean and beautifully landscaped, with greenery, lakes, fountains, and colourful buildings. There are plenty of bathrooms, and wheelchair and stroller access.

Legoland consists of 6 areas: Adventure, Imagination, Miniland, Kingdoms, Lego City, and Factory. Traveling with a toddler meant we could not cover everything, but we squeezed in rides, games, a meal, plenty of time on two of the many playgrounds and two visits to Miniland which displays all the region’s impressive landmarks made from lego blocks. We stayed until the park closed at 7pm.

Miniland at Legoland features landmarks of the region made of lego blocks
Lego structures at Miniland. Image courtesy The National UAE.
Besides Canada’s Wonderland, I have been to Six Flags in the U.S., Disneyland Paris, and Tokyo Disneyland. From the little of Dubai Parks and Resorts that I experienced, it is definitely up there with the best theme parks in the world, if not better.

Here are some tips to help you plan a trip to Legoland with your family at Dubai Parks and Resorts:

  1. The price of a day pass at Legoland is AED 265 and does not include access to Legoland Waterpark – this can be added to your ticket for an additional cost. Dubai residents get a 30% discount and free parking if they purchase their tickets online. A complete list of ticketing options, including multi-park passes, can be found here.
  2. Annual membership is available and a better option if you plan to visit the Parks frequently.
  3. Arrive early. There is so much to do, and if you plan to go on the weekend you may need to factor in wait times for rides. If you want to avoid lines altogether, Q-Fast front-of-line access can be purchased separately.
  4. Because the park is both indoors and outdoors, I recommend going during the cooler months of the year. I cannot imagine making this trip strapped with kids and strollers in the heat!
  5. Wear closed, comfortable shoes. The area is absolutely massive with lots to see. Avoid sandals and loose, dangling jewellery – they can fly right off on faster rides.
  6. Our tram made two stops: the first at Riverland and then at Legoland. Riverland is the gateway to Dubai Parks and Resorts and has over 50 themed retail, dining, and entertainment experiences located on a waterfront. If you want to have a nice meal this is a great option. The best part: you do not need to purchase a ticket to enter Riverland.
  7. Some rides have a minimum height requirement of 95cm for children. No exceptions.
  8. Guest services include locker, stroller, and wheelchair rentals, prayer rooms, change rooms, ATM’s, Lost and Found, and a Baby Care Centre in Imagination that has bottle warmers, microwaves, and feeding chairs for nursing mothers.
  9. Dining options inside Legoland are limited and not very good or healthy, frankly. There are more and better restaurants within walking distance right outside Legoland’s entrance, and a re-entry stamp on your hand enables you to leave the park and re-enter the same day.
  10. My niece’s favourite ride was Submarine at Adventure. If you are going with small kids, this ride is a must. Bonus: no minimum height requirement.

Sadly, there is no funnel cake at Legoland. But there is something called Granny’s Apple Fries: warm granny smith apples dusted with cinnamon and sugar, served with vanilla cream dipping sauce. I didn’t get to try it, but if you do, let me know if it’s as delicious as it sounds!

Title image courtesy Gulf News 

Afshin Pirhashemi’s House of Cards: How One Iranian Artist Explores the Impact of Mainstream Media at Art Dubai 2017

Art Dubai, the region’s biggest international art fair, just wrapped up it’s 11th edition. From March 15-18, Art Dubai 2017 featured 94 galleries from 43 countries in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, making this year’s fair the most diverse yet.

While I was unable to attend the events, I happened to walk by Afshin Pirhashemi’s House of Cards exhibit at Ayyam Gallery in Dubai International Financial Centre.

Ayyam Gallery is surrounded by a number of other galleries, but it was Pirhashemi’s massive paintings of stunning imagery that made me stop. As I walked through the courtyard I was scrolling through yet another article about hijab on my phone. All week I had been asking myself why the world is fixated on the hijab, or headscarf. As if to drive home the point, I looked up and saw a striking black and white canvas of a beautiful woman wearing a headscarf.

img_6167

To the right of this image was an even larger painting with 3 disparate elements: four women in chador pointing revolvers, the White House and a Porsche. It was absurd, so naturally I was intrigued.

img_6219

Looking around, it became obvious rather quickly that women and violence were central to House of Cards. Many paintings centered around women – some in chador and some without – and nearly all holding guns. But this was not commentary on Muslim women, or women in hijab, or Iranian women. This was a commentary on the media’s commentary of these figures.

Based in Tehran, Pirhashemi explores the impacts of mass mainstream media on society’s views of power, violence and gender subversion. He uses large scale, monumental imagery to draw parallels between the cold ugliness of war-induced crises and the scripted, premeditated reality of television and social media.

img_6215
img_6211

Images of the White House made me think of American foreign policy and its effects on countries like Iran. While this is true superficially, there is a deeper, more nuanced message.

Gallery literature pointed out “Pirhashemi’s reference to the U.S. elections depicts the absurd nature of a world informed by television and celebrity culture…In contrast to this widespread dependency on mediated reality, Pirhashemi reminds viewers of what lies beyond their screens by alluding to the growing war-induced crises that are impossible to ignore.”

img_6213

Diversity was the crowning achievement at Art dubai 2017, and it would be a mistake to think of art from the Middle East as anything but that. While Pirhashmi dissected the influence of the media, politics and Donald Trump, especially Donald Trump, were not off limits for other artists. Farah Nayeri of The New York Times did an excellent summary of artists who chose to express their disapproval of Trump’s Muslim ban through their art.

Art Dubai offers a singular opportunity for artists from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia to exhibit in a large and well-funded forum. In an article for cnn.com, Fair Director Director Myrna Awad says, “I’m proud to work with an institution that has been a major catalyst in the local, regional and international conversations on art from the Middle East and beyond…it has very much contributed to putting art from these regions onto the world map.”

Far from being a short-lived spike in interest, the arts scene in Dubai grows larger every year. Furthermore, the Guggenheim and Louvre Museums are currently under construction in Abu Dhabi.

Historically, the arts – theatre, music, cimema, literature, and art – have played and continue to play a prominent role in Arabic speaking cultures. As Ayad reminds us, a push for the arts in countries like the U.A.E. and Qatar did not arrive in a vacuum; after all, Middle Eastern art has a storied past. Interest is blossoming in Dubai and Doha because they are stable and have growing economies.

Which means more opportunity to amplify the unique perspectives and stories of artists like Pirhashemi in the region. Given the demographics of the U.A.E. and the prestige of the event, a lot more people will get to see these stunning works of art.

Title image courtesy artnet.com 

In the News: Hijab, Hijab, Hijab. Why Are We Obsessed With a Head Scarf?

Model Gigi Hadid on the cover of Vogue Arabia's first issue, March 2017
Supermodel Gigi Hadid on the cover of Vogue Arabia’s inaugural issue, March 2017

In the past week, I have come across more articles on hijab, the head cover worn by some Muslim women and others, than any other news story. More than the war in Syria.

This week alone, government officials, a multinational corporation, individuals, and the European Union are using hijab to articulate a wide range of positions. A symbol of resistance and opportunity for some, a tool of oppression for others.

These are some of the stories making headlines right now:

1. Nike unveils the Pro Hijab for Muslim female athletes. Priced at USD 35 and available in 2018, the Pro Hijab is targeted at consumers in the Arabian Gulf who wield enormous purchasing power. Like many other international brands, Nike is keen to target this demographic. Possibly the biggest hijab story of the decade. 

2. The European Court of Justice delivers a landmark ruling which states the workplace ban on headscarves is legal. Amnesty International warns the ruling “panders to prejudice.”

3. A Pakistan government official wants to make hijab mandatory for female students at colleges in the province of Punjab. To sweeten the deal, extra marks will be rewarded to those who comply. The good news: the government has rejected the proposal. The bad news: this will not end attempts to control what women can and cannot wear.

4. In the age of President Trump and his Muslim ban, women are choosing to embrace hijab as form of resistance, introducing a modern-day counterpoint to a widely accepted image of hijab as oppressive.

5. Backlash to Nike’s Pro Hijab gives rise to #BoycottNike on social media. Many accuse the company of making money off the subjugation of Muslim women.

Controversy surrounding the hijab is not new. If I were to calculate how long the hijab has been an object of public scrutiny, I would need to go back many hundreds of years.

European art of the 12th century and onwards depicts inhabitants of Muslim lands as exotic, backward, violent, and sexually depraved. Artists reimagined the private spaces inhabited by Muslim women and often showed them in the nude, the ultimate “unveiling.” Jean August Dominique Ingres’s Grand Odalisque of a young Oriental chambermaid, hookah pipe in hand, is one of many such paintings of the period. Like others, he never visited the Orient.

Oriental painting of a young chambermaid in the nude
Jean Augusta Dominique Ingres, Grand Odalisque, 1814, Musee du Louvre.

It’s a long running obsession by any measure. Unbelievably, this makes he hijab the most controversial piece of cloth in history.

In comparison, hijab in the UAE is apolitical. Who wears it, how they where it, when they wear it, and why they wear it are all non-issues. No one forces you to wear it, and no one yanks it off if you do (looking at you, France). There is no religious police. Notions of modesty for Emirati society are not religious; they are deeply cultural.

I feel like a broken record. There are plenty of women who chose to wear it, and lead productive lives while doing so. What will it take for us to turn the page and move on from the hijab to a point where it simply does not matter what a woman wears?