The Abaya, is a black tent, which all women in Saudi Arabia have to wear by religious decree. Abaya in direct translation from Arabic to English means “cloak”. Women in Saudi Arabia cover themselves according to Islamic tradition with an Abaya, Hijab, headscarf and a Niqab which is a face covering with a slit for the eyes tied to the back of the head. All Saudi women have to wear the Abaya and Hijab in public, and many choose to wear the Niqab. Western women are compelled to wear the Abaya but not the headscarf, although in public places you might be beaten by the religious police for not covering your head. Some very religious women also wear gloves and socks and cover their eyes with a veil.
The rationale behind women wearing the Abaya comes from a quote in the Qur’an: “O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters, and the believing women, to cover themselves with a loose garment. They will thus be recognised and no harm will come to them” Qur’an 33:59 (Translated by Ahmed Ali)]. However it is only more conservative Islamic societies that choose to cover completely such as the Wahhabism that is practiced in Saudi Arabia. Before the religious clampdown after the Iranian revolution in 1979 many women in Saudi Arabia did not cover up completely.
I have discovered that, while I may dislike the Abaya, it is not a big issue for Saudi women. They are more concerned with other women’s rights, such as owning property, education, bank accounts, male chaperonage and driving. From a purely personal point of view wearing the Abaya stops Saudi men from staring at you.
You would think that buying an Abaya would be simple, but there are many things you need to know. Most Abaya’s are black. Black is not compulsory, however you only see foreigners wearing other colors, and mostly Filipino maids. I think Abayas are probably black on historic grounds. In the middle ages in Europe black coloured clothes were the most expensive, as black dye was very difficult to achieve so only the richest people had black clothing. I suspect that tradition has continued in Arabia, and if you think about the status of the LBD in western fashion, black still reigns supreme there too.
The style of the Abaya is crucial and it is important that it should be actually dragging on the ground despite the potential arse over tit factor for me. Saudi women will make all sorts of judgements about your class from your Abaya. The fabric is almost always synthetic as the material has to be completely opaque and the very thinnest opaque fabrics are synthetic. A friend of mine is developing new natural Abaya fabrics at the Queen Noor university. How the Abaya hangs is also important, but I have yet to discover what the classiest cut of Abaya is. Many abayas are decorated with intricate embroidery and with beading again it’s hard to tell between upmarket and chavvy. (Please feel free to comment if you know the answer.)
My Abaya apparently comes from one of the best Abaya shops in Riyadh and was purchased by Saudi lady for me. It has very wide sleeves which are a bit of a problem when eating out as they easily get into food and are now looking slightly grubby. Its advantages include being able to leave home in your pajamas or underwear if you are running late, although I have yet to do that. I do find it hot, itchy and impossible to run in. At least I do not have to wear it when on our compound.
As not much skin shows in public, Saudi women care enormously about how their hands, feet and eyes look. Look for Louboutin shoes, a great mani-pedi, and big eye make-up, much more than I would normally wear during the day. Also the handbag is a big giveaway of a fashionable woman. You will see the most expensive arm candy on display everyday. I am trying to persuade the DH to invest in a “serious” handbag in order that I should be noticed. I thought a Hermes Birkin bag would be most suitable.