The cultural sensitivity wardrobe

Someone I know travelled to Dubai recently and I was wishing she’d gone two days earlier, because then she might have witnessed DadaK and Obapaa trailing hand luggage, children, and big pink teddy from one end of Dubai airport to the other in order to change flights. Apparently it took them 45 minutes. I think it would have been a sight.

Anyway, Silkcharm is in Dubai to deliver some training and her blog reflects on negotiating a very different cultural environment, in particular, wearing the abaya (veil) while she was there.

Well, I had to laugh. Not about her post, but about the enormous variations in what is culturally acceptable dress.

I’d been picturing her in something rather fetching, like the Emirates hosties wear – a little maroon pillbox and a sweeping cream veil that frames the face. I think she’d look pretty good in that. The reality was a shapeless black bag. Sad.

My Ghanaian mother-in-law soon put me straight on acceptable skirt lengths when I was living with her some years ago. I thought just above the knee was both stylish and modest (and cooooool, it’s so hot there), but no. There I was, sitting quietly on the verandah, when she approached me with an ntoma (length of cloth), made me stand up and wrapped it around my waist. Okaaay. Skirt length now extended to mid-calf.

This seemed a bit rich, coming from a woman who regularly came home from the farm to sit topless in the family courtyard. The last time I saw my mother’s breasts would have been before I learned to knock on bathroom doors.

Perhaps in Ghana breasts are primarily seen as functional. Breastfeeding women think nothing of whipping out a breast over the top of their blouses, rather than discreetly shoving the baby underneath as we do in my culture (and then getting thrown off the bus/out of the cafe). Whereas the area from navel to knee is – well, off limits to the general public, shall we say. Except when well hidden by figure hugging skirts.

However, to be fair, my experience was in the village and ten years ago. I can tell that times have changed. But if you check out these pix at lifestyle.ghanabase, you too will wonder how many Ghanaian Nanas are desperately waving ntomas at their navel-flaunting grand-daughters.

So do I plan to go topless in Ghana? Not on your nelly. I don’t know that breasts-as-functional applies to obroni (foreigners). It’s probably a lot more complex than that anyway. However I will show cultural sensitivity – at least till I’ve scouted the territory – and not wear shorts. (ActioMan would say that’s not cultural sensitivity, that’s protecting people).

I expect I’ll have to settle for caftans.

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4 thoughts on “The cultural sensitivity wardrobe

  1. Female clothing in India is a bit of an confusing subject as well, at least to Western people. Saris are often folded so that a fair bit abdomen shows, and sometimes your back as well (depends on the blouse you’re wearing beneath it), but your legs are completely covered. You have to be particularly careful to have the sari fabric cover the chest area, even though it’s already covered by the blouse’s material. But if you’re wearing Western-style clothes, it’s not a big deal to only have a t-shirt covering your chest. I still haven’t completely figured it out.

  2. Yes, I think there’s often more to dress codes than meets the eye. But often people are more tolerant of foreigners because we can’t be expeted to know. Although when you’re family … the expectations are higher I suppose.

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