I asked Anseya, one of my beautiful Bahraini training clients, who, over time, has become a dear friend to me, to share her thoughts on wearing the “abaya”, the long black robe worn by Muslim women in many Middle Eastern countries. There are so many misunderstandings about and false impressions of this piece of clothing, that I wanted to hear it first-hand from someone who is from this culture. It is important that we don’t naively and blindly accept general (and often incorrect or skewed) portrayals of people groups different from our own when we have yet to personally experience their culture and customs.
I personally loved wearing it when I visited my father in Saudi Arabia. I packed hardly anything, and appreciated not having to think about what I was going to wear, if my clothes were clean, ironed, and hole-free, and how to stay cool in warmer weather – I simply wore a tank top and shorts underneath, and no-one knew.
Anseya, thank you for giving me the gift of understanding and deeper appreciation for the traditions and values of this culture that I have come to love.
The Abaya, written by Anseya
By the grace of God, and my very good fortune, I have been lucky enough to travel to different places around the world, experience many different cultures and meet very nice new people, but as soon as we get to speaking about where I come from the same questions arise – do you like wearing the abaya? Don’t you feel oppressed? Do you have to wear it? Does everybody have to wear it? Why do you wear it? Sometimes it really does bother me that it so very misunderstood when it is really a very versatile and elegant garment.
First of all I’ll start with the basics. Yes, we live in a Muslim country; yes, we are surrounded by Muslim countries; No, we are not as extreme as Saudi, and no, we are not as open minded as the United Arab Emirates. I am so proud to be Bahraini. We are a country that is well balanced in all areas. We have a diverse expatriate population ranging from American to Indians and everything in between. We are very small country; I sometimes think of it as a very large gated community. We are very liberal in our views, however we have very strong roots that stem from religion and morals. The Arabic culture has so many plus points, it is sad that it is overshadowed by the generalizations of the bad aspects of the Muslim religion.
The Arabs have been known for generations for their hospitality and warmth. When they used to live and move through the desert, they would welcome guests with feasts and dress in the most extravagant animal skins to show their status and also to put forward their best selves for their guests. Men are extremely protective of their women. This is where the misunderstanding arises. Yes, they are overpowering. Yes, they think they are stronger and yes, they think that they have the upper hand. In some cases this is good and in some bad – like in every other culture in the world.
Regarding women in the Arab world: in the Arab culture, men want to protect them from everything that is bad for or harmful to them. In Islam, it is said in the Quran that women should cover their hair, their hands up to their wrists, and their legs up to their ankles. That is all. There is nothing about covering the face or anything extreme. Islam, unfortunately, is wrongly portrayed so often, in so many ways. The intention behind this covering was to protect women from those men who objectify women. As time passed, the abaya evolved for this reason.
The abaya is a long, black, dress-like garment. It is black in color because black is the absence of color. It is basic, and meant to be simple and subtle. Just like that little black dress we all own, hanging in our closets. The abaya, however, is worn on top of clothes. This is done to cover the whole body with one garment. It is loose-fitting and long.
The abaya fashion industry is a world of its own over here in the Arabian Gulf and the Middle East. With the evolution of designs, there is something new every day. They come in different materials, lighter materials for the summer and heavy ones for the winter. In my opinion, abayas are very elegant. The magic of this garment is that it is so diverse; you can get in in different styles and different shapes, with different designs and work done on it, like beading or thread work. The abaya is worn by women for different reasons: some, because of religion, others because they like the way it looks. For many, it is easy to wear as you can easily throw it on over pajamas on a bad day, or on a day you can’t choose what to wear, throw on some lip-gloss and you are good to go!
Sadly, it is so misunderstood, but the reality is, for those of us who wear it every day, we love it. We love the fact that you can have a formal abaya and a casual abaya. We can wear it for a quick grocery run or out to a formal dinner. Imagine one garment that you can wear anywhere, at anytime. I can keep it on the whole day because it is comfortable it does not get in the way. Many women in the Middle East think it is very elegant; and I use the word “sexy” here because it is mysterious and at the same time conservative. It leaves a lot to the imagination. It is versatile, useful, comfortable, and can be as simple as plain black or as ornate and beautiful as a royal gown. The abaya is worn by choice, at least here in Bahrain; it is not forced or expected. For me personally, it is a way of life and I love it.
I hope this post was not too long. I hope it has given you a better understanding of the abaya and cleared the mystery and misconceptions regarding it. Thank you for your time and interest, and please come to Bahrain and visit us. Who knows? You may love wearing an abaya as much as I do!