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Ask Ali: Wedding invitations and working conditions

Our culture columnist offers advice to a first-time female attendee at an Emirati wedding, and tries to dispel the notion that domestic help is treated poorly as a matter of course.

Dear Ali: I am invited to the wedding of an Emirati - lucky me! The sister of a woman I work with is getting married, and as this is a first for me, I don't want to get anything wrong. I want to be a good guest and get the most I can out of this experience. LK, Abu Dhabi.

The first thing I have to tell you is to expect a big crowd. We don't do small weddings here.

I can understand you wanting not to offend, so you should ask your friends about the dress code. Depending on the background of the family and where the wedding takes place, the women, even when they are only among each other, might wear sheilas and abayas. If so, don't show up in a revealing cocktail dress. Choose something a bit more conservative and try not to reveal too much skin. However, it could be that the women turn up in the latest designer outfits. Then you can dress up as much as possible to match them.

The female relatives of the couple will greet the guests and help you find a place at one of the tables. Trust their hospitality; they will seat you with guests with whom you will fit in. Introduce yourself to the women at your table and tell them how you know the bride and the groom. They will be happy to talk, especially about children.

The bride usually comes in after the starters are served, and receives well-wishers from her family and inner circle of friends. How well you know her determines whether you will be included in this. There will be a lot of music and dancing - real Arab dancing.

Towards the end of the party, you will see all the women putting on their sheilas and abayas. This means the groom is about to come in, accompanied by the male guardians of the bride. Then the official wedding pictures will be taken. It also means the party is coming to an end.

Nobody expects you to bring gifts - you can visit the bride later and bring her something then. Leave your camera at home, no pictures! The most important thing is to enjoy yourself. It's going to be a nice experience.


Dear Ali: Why do Arabs treat their servants as if they were slaves? Is this part of your culture or religion? MB, Al Ain.

Dear MB: I am a bit worried that your question might actually be an opinion but I will do my best to dispel this perception.

I have never heard of a religion that asks its followers to treat others badly based on their occupation, just as I have never heard of a culture that boasts about treating people with disrespect. Islam is no different and, as Emiratis, we are first and foremost Muslims.

That said, I have heard of the United Nations report on the UAE's human rights record and the allegations of the mistreatment of domestic workers. This is a serious issue, and I am glad that companies such as the Saudi broadcaster MBC have launched campaigns to heighten awareness.

There are many horror stories about maids who have kidnapped children, stolen money or abandoned their jobs, but it would be unfair to say all maids are bad.

I hope people can see the same applies to Emiratis - a few bad apples have spoilt our reputation.

Let's not forget that all these workers are here because their own countries - the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Ethiopia, for example - support the labour agreements. They wouldn't do this if it were common for their citizens to be treated like slaves.

Also, all arrangements go through a period of renegotiation, and our leaders are vigilant about improving the working conditions in the UAE. The Philippines, for example, has tightened controls on labour migration.

Ali Al Saloom is a cultural adviser and public speaker from the UAE. Follow @AskAli on Twitter, and visit www.ask-ali.com to ask him a question and to find his guidebooks to the UAE, priced at Dh50.

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