In Saudi Arabia most of women wears abaya. Abaya is a plain black robe worn by Muslim women to cover their regular clothing, It could be described as a long-sleeve robe-like dress and it is the traditional form of dress for many countries of the Arabian peninsula including Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. In Iran the abaya is referred to as a chador and in South Asia a burqa.
The abaya covers the whole body except the face, feet, and hands. It can be worn with the niqab, a face veil covering all but the eyes.
The origins of the abaya are vague. Some think that it existed as long as 4 000 years ago in the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and when Islam arose in the seventh century C.E., the religion absorbed local veiling practices into its culture, probably due to the dressing traditions of the women of Arab Jahiliya.
In those days women wore dresses that revealed their necks, chests, even breasts as well as other parts of their bodies. They also drew their veils backwards while leaving the front parts wide open (understandable in the crushing desert heat). Consequently, when Islam arrived, they were ordered to draw their veils forward to cover their chest and to protect women from acts of disrespect.
Some think that the idea of ‘the covering’ was more about class than it was about religion. In pre-Islam urban centers of the Arabian Peninsula veiling was seen as a sign of privilege and a luxury afforded to women who didn’t have to work. They were distinguished from slave girls and prostitutes, who were not allowed to veil or cover, and nomadic and rural women too busy working to be bothered with something so impractical as a face veil and extra layer of clothing.
Today, the strictest interpretations of Islamic Shari’a law dictate that Muslim women should wear full body coverings in front of any man they could theoretically marry. This means that it is not obligatory in the company of father, brothers, grandfathers, uncles or young children and does not need to be worn in front of other Muslim women.
Abayas come in a multiplicity of types and design, and different styles and colours are favoured by women from particular regions according to specific religious and cultural interpretations.
Although black is the preferred colour in some countries Muslim women can generally wear whatever color they like as long as it does not generate unnecessary attention. For this reason earth-tones are popular choices.
Muslim women often wear designer labels underneath their outer garments and increasingly they want to wear fashionable outerwear too. Devout need not mean drab. Fashion designers are waking up to this and specialised stores, websites and fashion shows are springing up, top European fashion labels including John Galliano and Blumarine have recently showcased models wearing couture abayas.
The abaya has come a long way in 4,000 years!
Reading a novel about Saudi Arabian history, studying the Sunni Wahhabi beliefs, or watching the evening news doesn’t give Westerners true insight into Saudi Arabia culture. Indeed, a culture that is so foreign to the Western lifestyle may seem impenetrable – until you hear the account of a Western woman who lived the culture while nursing in Saudi.
Those in the medical profession have the kind of access to the inner workings of the Kingdom in a way that other Westerners simply don’t. After all, most contractors live in relative isolation, staying in compounds designed not to raise the ire of Wahhabists who view Westerners (and even other Muslims who don’t ascribe to Wahhabi beliefs) as infidels. But nurses and doctors have entry into the homes and lives of Saudis that is unparalleled.
From a Western woman’s perspective, Saudi Arabia culture is an eye-opener – to say the least. It’s hard to imagine two cultures that are more divergent in their attitudes toward women. While it’s true that women in the West still face pay inequity and the proverbial glass ceiling, the ceiling for Saudi women is seemingly made of concrete.
That’s not to say that Saudi women necessarily perceive any oppression. Indeed, the abaya – the black outer garment worn by Saudi women – is embraced as an expression of religious devotion. In Saudi Arabia culture, women’s attire must not be form fitting, must not attract attention, and must not be worn out of vanity. Moreover, although women must cover all but their hands and faces, some choose to (or are told to by their husbands) also wear veils and gloves.
Like a woman’s clothing, a woman’s role in Saudi Arabia culture is largely dictated by the prevailing religious beliefs. Unlike in the West, where a woman’s equal partnership with her husband is at least given lip service, a Saudi marriage is often arranged, with the woman becoming the man’s property after marriage. As such, she must be obedient and submissive; if she is not, her husband may punish her or beat hear. And, although it is less widespread than it once was, men can take more than one wife.
Saudi law generally dictates that a woman is valued as one-half of a man. For example, a woman receives half of the inheritance of her brother, and in court, a woman’s testimony is given half the weight of a man’s. Certain punishments, such as whipping, are dictated by law and through practice, often at the hands of what could be termed “morality police.” In Saudi Arabia culture, morality has many shades of meaning; prostitution, for example, can be a crime of being in the company of a man who is not a woman’s husband or male relative. Typically, a woman faces 90 lashes, although sometimes the punishment doled out is 200 lashes.
When you live in a culture so different from your own, the experience can’t help but open a floodgate of feelings. On the one hand, many of the practices you witness are abhorrent and rock the very foundation of your beliefs; on the other hand, within the context of Saudi Arabia culture and society, they are terribly consistent with Wahhabi beliefs.