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Why wear an abaya?

One woman's thoughts about and experience of wearing an abaya

I’ve always admired the abaya. I admire how a garment with the specific purpose of creating modesty and uniformity for the wearer has evolved into a beautiful representation of the woman who wears it. It is first and foremost a symbol of faith and devotion: of a belief in the value of humility. But a splash of coloured rhinestones here and there hints at the naivety of youth; plain black cloth reflects an intrinsic practicality; while draped silk, crisp pleats or asymmetrical lines are all symbols of the eternal fashionista.

Lars Plougmann/Flickr

What I love most about the abaya and niqab is that even though you can be self-expressive, no one has to know who you are. As a former teacher who often gets accosted by former students, sometimes I just wish I could disappear, especially when I’m at the mall at 9 pm in my sweats, with no make-up and hair that resembles a scouring pad, thanks to a day’s worth of unyielding humidity.

So when the opportunity came along to buy my first abaya, I was all for it.

Fabrics, patterns, embellishments and oud

At first, I stupidly perused the trendy abaya stores in various malls. Surrounded by flowing fabrics, satin details and Swarovski embellishments, my inner shopaholic began to immediately reason with my brain in a pathetic attempt to justify the outrageous prices. It’s an investment: spend money on the abaya to save money on the clothes underneath it! You’ll wear it ALL THE TIME! BUY IT! BUY IT!

The intoxicating smell of oud was clearly muddling my sense of judgment. It was time to get serious. I wanted something that I felt looked good on me that made me feel good about myself even if I was just wearing sweats underneath it and I wanted something that didn’t break the bank. The abaya souq (Souq al Aseery) was definitely my next stop.

Here, I felt more comfortable. There were plenty of choices, in different fabrics and styles that I wouldn’t have to spend a month’s salary on. It only took me a few hours to decide upon a flowing black abaya made from saloona fabric (which is light and perfect for summer) with bell sleeves gathered into satin cuffs embellished with black crystals. I chose a matching black satin, crystal-encrusted belt that cinched my waist to give me more of a figure completed the look. I decided to go for it and wear a niqab (veil) as well as an abaya and chose one that was simple and thin, edged with the same black crystal and something I could easily see through. Mission accomplished.

Freedom in disguise

Before I went out in my abaya, I had to wear it around the house for my children to get used to it. It took two days before my 11 month old would stop trying to play peek-a-boo with me as soon as I donned my veil. And my toddler simply loved that I would be a wearing a "black princess dress" like all the other princesses he saw in the malls. But I had to explain over and over that if we ever got separated in a mall, my large white bag would mean that it was his mommy under the black princess dress and not a stranger.

Needless to say, I left the kids at home when I first ventured out. Those trips were quite uneventful although one distinct difference was in the amount of time it took to get ready to go out. I just put on my abaya over whatever I was wearing and stepped out.

Behind my niqab, I relished in the freedom of being able to see the world when no one could see me. I openly stared with admiration at a perfectly-coiffed woman who looked impeccable and therefore must have been extremely uncomfortable. Fashion, after all, takes no prisoners. I did not envy her one bit as I wandered around in yoga pants and a tank top—under my abaya, that is. Even despite my less-than-perfect vision under the veil, the comfort and freedom of not being looked at was liberating.

Amal Saba*, a British/Lebanese expatriate, enjoys much the same freedom as I did after recently purchasing an abaya. 

"I bought it to blend in. I just don’t want anyone to bother me," she explains. "I don’t have to worry about if my knees are covered or if my shoulders are showing. People just don’t stare at you. They leave you alone."

Saba has even benefited from wearing the abaya for work purposes.

"I have meetings sometimes with Qataris where I wear my abaya. It’s more of a respect thing," she says. "They take you more seriously in it, like they appreciate it and respect you more for wearing it."

And the perks don’t end there. "If I’m at a restaurant with a friend and we are both wearing the abaya, the service is better," she laughs. "And I wore it in the car and people were letting me through more, too!"

For Fatma Omary, a stay-at-home mother of three from Jordan, wearing the abaya is something she’s done for years out of habit. "I lived 13 years in Saudi Arabia and there it was mandatory. So when we moved here, my daughters and I just continued to wear it. It saves us from unwanted attention when we are out alone," she says.

Tried and tested

The experience that will definitely prompt me to reach for my abaya more often than not played out after a seemingly endless week when I had been sick. So sick and tired from life’s daily chaos that I actually looked forward to going to the doctor’s for a chance to be alone. But when I walked in, I recognised an acquaintance of mine in the otherwise empty waiting room.

Everyone has an acquaintance like her. She’s the friend of a friend that you’ve met a couple of times, who pushes for you to call her to get together sometime for coffee. She’s probably nice and interesting and funny too, but someone you just never got around to getting to know better. And at a time and place like this, she’s not someone you’d look forward to seeing.

I purposely sat across from her and stared straight at her for a couple of minutes. When it was clear she could not see me, I smiled to myself. How nice it was to avoid the prying questions and awkward explanations that would have been exchanged, the meek pleasantries and false promises of getting together. How nice it was to simply be.

I could get used to this!

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