The Abaya

The first question I’m asked by family and friends after they found out where I was going.. “Do you have to cover up??”… Yes, I do have to, wherever a man is present. In the KSA, women can only be uncovered around other women, her husband, and their family. So basically, all of these clothes I brought for whatever occasion will never be seen accept at work (my all-women’s university) and when I am in foreign-friendly areas (desert hikes and compounds).

The abaya is a long cloak, that is traditionally all-black. But you will often find today’s abayas with different material, designs, colors and sparkles on the sleeves and the base. As a non-muslim foreigner, this robe is the only strict requirement to wear in public. The niqab, is a piece that covers the face, besides the eyes. I am not required to wear this. However, it seems to be quite helpful during this sandstorm season. Covering your hair with a scarf or hijab, is less enforced for non-muslims, but I’m sure you’re more respected if you don’t go against the grain. Everyone carries a scarf just in case they are approached by the muttawa, the religious police.

There’s always going to be a fuss about it. But as extreme and restrictive the abaya may seem to some, it’s quite easy to get used to. Out of all of the factors that contribute to daily stress, this attire is the least of my worries. Yet, is the main thing people want to know about. The language and the segregation, is the big adjustment! My roommate actually remains covered behind the locked doors of our apartment, which probably makes me look like a heathen in my loungewear. I’ve seen some pretty cute abayas.. and I already own 4 (3 I’m in the process of getting altered) and a 5th one being designed. I’m thinking about putting a modern/Latin spin to it 🙂 ..

In the compound, I was actually ordered to remove my abaya.. In public.. It almost felt like they asked me to remove my shirt. Last week, I went out into the desert “uncovered” and even though it felt GREAT for the sun to hit my skin..Strangly, for a second, I felt naked in front of all of the western men. Of course I got over that though, and enjoyed the rare moment. But this lets me know that perhaps the Saudi women, who have been covered all of their lives vs. my two weeks, welcome this conservative attire.. instead of seeing it as a command. Through their perspective, being uncovered in public is kind of like that question, “have you ever dreamed that you were naked on stage?”

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9 thoughts on “The Abaya

  1. before moving to yemen for a year, i wasn’t too thrilled about wearing the black abaya myself but once i realized how much time/effort i saved figuring out what to wear- it grew on me! 😉
    one question- who orders you to remove clothing in the compound?

      • from what i recall, the abayas were pretty plain and always solid black- not nearly as glitzy as what i’ve seen in other parts of the gulf!
        i guess i don’t understand how anyone can ask you to remove clothes. what if you were a muslim, would they have done the same? is the no-abaya rule in place to prevent saudi women from entering the compound and it’s establishments?

      • Sounds like a good assumption, especially since the compounds have everything that you can’t find on the outside (public mixing, women driving, attire,..). However, many Saudis have traveled to other countries and experienced these luxuries, so, idk.. I may look into that

  2. When I was in RoK, I ordered some abayat to wear. I wanted to protect my skin during nasty monsoon season. I appreciate this post a lot on so many levels. Thanks for writing :o)

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