Young Gulf Arab Women’s Views on the Abaya

This post continues the series of articles I’ve written based on interviews with five young Qatari women who are now attending universities at Qatar Foundation’s Education City in Doha, Qatar, including Northwestern and Virginia Commonwealth, and Swansea University in Wales.  This article focuses on the girls’ views on wearing the abaya (long black cloak).

During my first foray into the Arab world, on a trip with my husband (a Lebanese native) to visit his relatives in Jordan and Lebanon in 1996, I was quite startled at the sight of a woman enveloped in black, from head to toe, standing against a far wall, waiting in the gate area, as were we, for our flight from JFK to Amman, Jordan.  This woman, seemingly devoid of personality or expression, melting into the background, was wearing not only an abaya, but a coal-colored face covering that hid her eyes, and black gloves.  I found myself having to stifle any outward signs of consternation and surprise, although I did manage a few prolonged sideways glances.  This image and the associated feelings of curiosity tinged with bewilderment stuck with me for several years until it became part of the “everyday” after we moved from Washington, DC to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in November 2000.

By September 2004 we relocated from Saudi Arabia to the small, yet progressive, Gulf nation of Qatar.  While accustomed to seeing women dressed in long black robes, I remained curious about how Gulf Arab women, themselves, felt about wearing the obligatory abaya.  During the course of my time with five young Qatari women who were gracious enough to grant me extended interviews focusing on topics such as how they balanced their traditions with western influence and their thoughts on pursuing a career versus marriage, I had the opportunity to ask their views on wearing the abaya.

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Self-confident eighteen year-old Sherifa Hammam, a student of business and law at Swansea University in Wales, explained, “You first wear the abaya when you reach puberty.”  Her eyes intent on mine, Sherifa continued, “I didn’t see any problem with wearing the abaya.  I was cool with it, because I believed in it, you know.  Not only because it’s our social custom, it’s our religion, first.  Our religion says that you have to cover your head, and wear something conservative.  I first started wearing the hijab in grade-8, and when I reached grade-10 I wore the abaya.  So I did have my time for fun.”

Reserved and soft-spoken, Sara Abdulghani, a student at Virginia Commonwealth , divulged, “When I was really young, like ten or eleven years old, I wanted to wear the abaya, but my mom didn’t want me to.  I was crying to my mom, ‘Please, I want an abaya.’ I wanted to look older.”  Taking a sip of water, Sara resumed, “When I first wore an abaya, I was really happy.  It was so amazing.  I felt so high.  I was like ‘Yeah, I’m wearing an abaya.’”

Two Arab Women in Abayas at Souk

Sara, adjusting her eyeglasses, maintained that these days, “I feel really comfortable in the abaya, but then sometimes it’s kind of annoying.  If you’re sitting down and you want to move it always sticks in the wheels of the chair.  But, you know, in our culture and religion you have to wear something decent.  And not everything in my closet is decent.  Like if you have skinny jeans, or something tight, you just wear the abaya, to cover over it and become decent.”

Currently studying Jounalism at Northwestern University, bold and resolute, eighteen year-old Mouza Abdulaziz, declared she was around thirteen when she started wearing the abaya.  “At first I didn’t like it.  Because back then I couldn’t run around or act crazy, but, in time, I learned to love it.”  Mouza highlighted the importance of accessorizing the abaya asserting, “I think some women look extremely beautiful in the abaya, especially when they know how to present themselves with the handbag and the shoes, even the way they wear their headscarf.”  Like Sara, Mouza feels the abaya can make daily fashion choices that much easier.  Her hands folded on the table, Mouza remarks, “Okay, when you’re a teenager and you have to go to school and you don’t have a uniform, you’re like, ‘Oh what should I wear today?’ and sometimes you get to the point where you don’t want to wear anything in your closet.  So, when you wear the abaya, you don’t have to worry about the clothes underneath.”

Two Arab Women Dressed Up in Abayas

While the abaya might make the daily challenge of what to wear less difficult for Gulf Arab women as compared to their western counterparts, there are, increasingly, distinct fashion statements Arab women can make with the abaya that include quite intricate and colorful designs.  Twenty-two year-old Fatma Ibrahim, also studying Journalism at Northwestern University, however, appreciates the simplicity of a purely black-toned abaya.  Fatma renders, “I like the abaya, but I don’t like colored embellishments on them, and mine are mostly black, if you notice.  Even if I have designs with lace or something it would all be in black.  I feel it’s more elegant that way, and lots of embellishments can look a bit tacky.  Not too many people know how to balance between elegance and tacky.  So, I just try to stay on the safe side with the black, and abayas are usually supposed to be black, all black.”

I was curious if the young women ever felt compelled to wear the niqab, full black face covering.  I had seen older, more conservative, Qatari women wearing the niqab, covering not only with an abaya and headscarf, but their entire face – their eyes disappearing behind the black veil.  Sara, her dark opals studying me, replied, “When I go to a wedding party or something and I have a lot of make-up on my face, yeah, I like to cover it.  Because you know in our religion they say you’re not supposed to show your face with a lot of make-up, and I do cover my face, but a lot of people don’t do it – but I like to do it.”  The wedding party that Sara speaks of is a “women only” wedding, a tradition in the Gulf region.  Sara added, “It is polite for my religion to cover my face, because some men stare a lot.”

Woman Wearing Abaya (Two Men to Side) at Souk

I asked the girls about the traditions on when it is appropriate to wear the abaya.  I knew young women are required to wear the abaya in public settings where men are present, but what was the tradition for wearing the abaya when around male relatives?  The girls disclosed that they did not have to wear the abaya around their uncles, but they did need to be covered around male cousins.  Mouza explained that the abaya must be worn around those men you could possibly marry, which includes cousins but not uncles.  In the Arab Gulf region it is not only common for cousins to marry, but it is encouraged and is considered commendable, as it makes the family circle tighter.  According to Sara, “In my family, when our gatherings include just my uncles, I don’t cover my hair in front of them.  Usually on Fridays, though, I wear anything I like.  I like to be looking good in front of my female cousins.  We’re all dressed up and we sit and we chat but sometimes we have my cousins, like the older men, so we have to cover our hair.  If they come inside we just cover our hair and cover ourselves and we sit with them.”

Fatma, pulling a wisp of hair away from her face, conveys, “I only wear the abaya when there are male relatives coming and going.  Like, for example, around my cousins, my older cousins, the guys, but not my uncles.  Like on Fridays when the male cousins are coming over, they tell us and we put on our abayas.  Before they come in they say ‘Okay I’m coming in,’ like they knock first.  So, if you’re not covered, cover.”  Fatma reveals that she wears “mostly jeans and t-shirts” when around other women and her uncles.

Me in an Abaya at Qatar Foundation

According to Mouza, her tone becoming animated, when women gather in the home, “We wear whatever we want, because it’s all girls and women.  If a male relative is coming in the home, an uncle or older cousin, we just leave and go to another room and sit there until they leave.  And the men here in Qatar if they know that there are women sitting in the room they will just say ‘hi’ to the older people like my aunts and then they just leave.  They know that we’re there.”  Mouza added that the men have their own majlis (sitting area for social functions) and typically assemble there, separate from the women.

It is clear that these young women who are attending prestigious American universities in Qatar, and who have lofty career ambitions, continue to hold their native traditions close to their hearts – as they should.  Thank you to Mouza, Sherifa, Fatma, and Sarah for helping to demystify the abaya!

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3 comments on “Young Gulf Arab Women’s Views on the Abaya

  1. thanks for making this article! i really liked this :). I am a Muslim and i really admire wearing abaya even though i am not wearing it since i am living in a non-muslim country. But I got only a chance to wear Abaya when there are an Islamic gatherings. Thanks for this! ^_^

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