Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Abaya - Back in Black

There has been a lot of discussion lately about what women in Saudi Arabia must wear when they are out in public.  That traditionally black cloak worn over her clothing that hides the female form is called the abaya, and lately there have been heated discussions about whether colored abayas should be permitted or not.  My husband has told me that when he was growing up in Jeddah, women did not wear abayas.  Of course women dressed modestly, but they wore what they wished in terms of colors and styles, and they weren't obligated to wear the uniform of the black abaya.  It wasn't really until about the 1990s when religious police began forcing women to wear the abaya in public.

Beige/Taupe/ Black Abaya with Turquoise Trim
But why black, you may ask?  There is really no reason at all for women to wear black.  Somehow it became the only color worn in Saudi Arabia, although there is certainly no rule, law or regulation about the color being only black.  Some religious authorities have thrown fits these past few years with the introduction of colors and embellishments to satisfy women's preferences and individuality. The opposition claims that embellishments and colors attract attention and are not modest.  I guess black is the only color they consider "modest."   The purpose of the abaya is to dress modestly, obscuring the female curves, loosely covering all but the hands and face.  Whether an abaya is black or not shouldn't really matter.  To be forced to wear black in the brutal heat of Saudi Arabia is inhumane.  And unless the government is going to provide black abayas for all the women in Saudi Arabia to wear, how we choose to express ourselves through our abayas should be up to us.  My personal opinion is that men want women to wear black in Saudi Arabia so they will be less inclined to venture out in the heat.  It is a way for men to maintain control and keep women at home because it's just too darn hot to go outside wearing black.

Black Abaya with Pink Camouflage Sleeves
What really bugs me is that people in KSA try to say that women should wear black abayas because of religious teachings.  No where does Islam say that a woman must wear an abaya, and no where does it say that the abaya must be black.  Islam requires both men and women to dress modestly - that's it.  Another thing that bugs me is that according to Islam, men are supposed to lower their gazes and not look at women. So what does it matter what color I am wearing if men aren't supposed to be looking anyway?  Men need to mind their own business and quit trying to control every aspect of women's lives, down to what color she should wear.  It's ridiculous. 

Black Abaya with White Flowers
A disturbing and discouraging article appeared this past week in the Arab News regarding a campaign which has been started at Dammam University opposing colorful abayas.  The article states that "female students are required to abide by the rule of wearing black as a sign of respect to the educational environment."  As if students wearing colors other than black are disrespectful to teachers and other students and that they cannot learn if they are wearing colors.   What I feel is disrespectful is someone trying to dictate to me what color I should wear.  You can read this enlightening blog post written by SaudiWoman a few years ago explaining "Abaya Regulations" and dress code enforcement at schools in Saudi Arabia.

Brown Abaya
I just love how I am always told that there is no compulsion in Islam, however it seems that not only am I forced to wear the abaya, but now they want to go so far as to limit my color choice to black.   So what is it? Compulsion or not?

Currently there is a "survey" on Arab News asking:  Do you think colorful abayas should be avoided? Yes or No?  The poll is running neck and neck.  Personally I don't like the way the survey is worded - it has a negative connotation, insinuating that color should be something  to "avoided."  

Blue Abaya with African Print Sleeves and Back
Don't men have more important things to do than worry about what colors women are wearing? Women are getting killed in car crashes daily here in Saudi Arabia because we are not allowed to drive.  We are at the mercy of incompetent male drivers who drive recklessly, putting everyone in harm's way.  Why isn't more attention paid to this issue instead of what color I am wearing?

Back View of  the Blue Abaya above
Men in Saudi Arabia are allowed to wear pretty much whatever they want to wear - any color, any style of dress.  I've seen men out in public in KSA in attire that I can only describe as suitable for wearing in the privacy of one's own home.  They literally look as if they just crawled out of bed and went out the door. Nobody ever says a word about this.  Maybe it's time we did - especially since women are getting picked on because we don't all want to look the same wearing boring black every single day, while men are permitted to wear bedclothes out in public. I object!

Beige and Brown Abaya with Gold Embroidery
It's bad enough that we have to wear layers of clothing in the sweltering heat of Saudi Arabia.  I'll be damned if I will be forced to wear only black.  I am happy to see colorful abayas now in the shops, and a wider variety of styles and fabrics to choose from. I actually enjoy abaya shopping now.

Print Top with Black Skirt Abaya
By the way, the abayas featured in this post all belong to me. I made a few of them myself, and some I bought.  I apologize for the bad quality of the images.

44 comments:

  1. I love how the new beige brown one turned out! looks like the guy finally got what you meant ;)

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    1. Thanks, Blue! It's one of my favorites now. Love it.

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    2. love the black with white flowers

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  2. I admire you for staying sane of mind in that crazy crazy country! They really want to remove as much joy and happiness as possible in the life of the women over there and it's unbelievably sad to think that such things are still going on nowadays. I sometimes think that I am reading some kind of historical medieval story when I read your blog but no, this is the reality for some women in the world of today!! It's just mind-boggling. It makes me SO SO grateful to live where I live.

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    1. I do have a pretty good life in KSA, but there are many things that I have to overlook or ignore in order to be happy and not let these things drive me crazy. It's not always easy and I don't think everyone who comes here is able to do it and it taints their experience negatively, unfortunately.

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  3. "No where does Islam say that a woman must wear an abaya, and no where does it say that the abaya must be black"

    Leave Islam to the Muslims, please. You have no idea what you're talking about.

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    1. I notice that you commented as Anonymous - very brave of you - and that you did not provide any references to disprove my statement that you quoted.

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    2. Dear Anon (and I can't add to what Susie already said on this point):

      You said: "Leave Islam to the Muslims, please"

      You may believe that this delineation is important, and you are free to observe it. You may also wish for this delineation to be observed by non-Muslims, but they have no obligation to comply with your wishes.

      Muslims act and express the contradictory anger of children. First they make it clear that non-Muslims don't count. Then they get frustrated when non-Muslims don't do what they expect them to do.

      Why do you care what non-Muslims do if they don't count?

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    3. Anonymous....what are your references? Where does it say that a woman must wear an abaya and that it must be black??? - enquiring mind

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  4. Susie! All of these are beautiful! You are so talented!!!! Talk about black and white...will things ever change over there?

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    1. Thanks, Lori! I made 2 of the abayas myself and also tweaked 2 of the store bought ones, more to my liking and just to make them my own. I have actually seen a lot of changes in my 7 years living in KSA, but there is still a long way to go. Happy Thanksgiving!

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  5. I just bought my self a beige and cream abaya thought it would be cooler

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    1. Hi Denise - I think the colors and the fabrics really make a difference in making us feel cooler when we wear the abaya. The thinner the fabric, the better!

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  6. I agree with you. the color of the abayah should not matter in the least bit. as long as the women is properly covered that is all that should matter.

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    1. Hi Hebah - We are grown women with individual styles and tastes and we should be regarded as individuals, not as schoolgirls in uniforms. It's bad enough that women are legally regarded as children all their lives in KSA. The least we should be allowed to do is wear the colors we want!

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  7. " It wasn't really until about the 1990s when religious police began forcing women to wear the abaya in public." Sorry to say that the statement is not true.... I can safely say that it has been enforced since 1970s... when my parents came to saudi arabia..... before that I don't know.....

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    1. Hi Usman - There are differing stories of when this happened. I have talked to several women who lived in KSA for decades and they insist that it wasn't until after the Gulf War that the abaya was really forced on all women.

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  8. I lived in Jeddah from 1975 to 1977 and I'd say that most women out in public then did wear an abaya, mostly black although I do recall seeing few that were grey or beige (darkish shades); a few non-Moslem women who lived there at the same time and who had ventured out with skirts that the religious police deemed immodest (perhaps a little too short or form-fitting) got the cane across their bare lower legs for their pains, so most were brought into line pretty rapidly, unless they could wangle a transfer (mostly with their husbands) to more congenial climes. Men too (non-Moslem obviously) sometimes got whacked if they ventured out, specially into the souk, wearing shorts, for example. Our company briefed us pretty strictly on the "rules" so no-one was affected, to my knowledge. My only recollection of personal inconvenience was being shooed out of shop at around 4pm for the afternoon prayers, when they had to close - the religious police were quite visible. I usually took myself off to a cafe for some tea or a coffee, or back to our office (pretty close to the souk in those days) to check some more accounts, etc. However, I vividly remember one Friday at the Creek (where we had a few beach houses) seeing a young and obviously wealthy Saudi couple being admonished by the police outside our compound when I was leaving for home, because she had been driving their car - although I didn't know then personally some acquaintances did and apparently they had both studied at university in California where obviously she had got used to driving herself around. Obviously they were doing no-one any harm and she was dressed in regulation modest abaya. I must say in my time there one always felt very safe and, because of the connections we had in our company were mostly insulated from petty nonsense (exit visas and the like), so I mainly enjoyed my time there, but the ban on women driving and the pretty strict segregation of the sexes always struck me as very bizarre and unfair. For part of the time there I mostly ran an office (of a bank) where we had a dedicated female section, staffed only by females and to which the male staff in the main part of the branch were forbidden entry; it made operations somewhat complicated and required considerable duplication of functions of course - our policy had to be "when in Rome ..." in order to operate there successfully. My own personal first experience of seeing a lady dressed in full abaya and face mask (the kind of nose beak they wear in Abu Dhabi and some other Gulf countries) was in fact in London some years earlier at a classical music concert on the South Bank - the couple sitting next to me were a young Abu Dhabi couple; in those days (late 1960s - early 1970s) this was quite exotic of course in London, although some of the better hotels had a fair smattering whenever I visited.

    I do admire your efforts to try and work within the system to allow yourself and others some freedom of expression in still very modest dress; I hope the day will not be too long distant when you will at least be able to drive yourself around.

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    1. Thanks, Bill. I also have a hard time with the gender segregation and not being able to drive. I'm glad you enjoyed your time here.

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  9. I don't understand why women don't wear lighter colored abayas. Saudi Arabia is a hot country and dark colors outside in the heat make little sense at all.

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    1. Jerry - I am seeing a lot more lighter colored abayas lately. Lots of tan color and grey.

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  10. Wow you are so talented Susie ! Those abayas you made are MASHALLAH !

    About the "black only" I believe it comes from an hadith where Aisha (RA) described how she and other women went back to their homes after Fajr salat looking like crows.

    From that hadith, it is accepted that those female Sahabas were wearing black long dresses. And it is loved to imitate the Sahabas.

    At the same time, Islam teaches us not to force anything on others. So I am for the colors and patterns.

    I also find interesting that this hadith shows us how women were totally part of the Masjid at that time. On their way back from Fajr salat meaning they prayed outside their homes at the masjid.

    May Allah forgives me for any mistake in what I wrote. I just tried my best to share my limitated knowledge.

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    1. Hi Estelle - Thank you so much. I appreciate your explanation.

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    2. there is no religious restriction on colors. i think black is considering as best to avoid public attention. regarding women praying in masjid, in early period women used to offer their prayers with the prophet(pbuh), while wrapping their heads in their scarf, without being recognized because of darkness. (that means they waren't cover their face) and the prophet (pbuh) said, "do not stop the female servants of allah from attending the masjid of allah.

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  11. after pondering about this whole black abayah subject, i find myself agreeing with them, because when i think about it, the abayah is mean to cover the women, not draw attention to the women, if the women is going to be walking around in a really colorful abayah, that's going to be drawing attention, and that negates from the entire point of the abayah. of course this is my own opinion and there is nothing wrong with lightly decorated scarfs or abayah's as long as it doesn't resemble a dress more than it resembles something that's supposed to be covering a dress, not act as a dress itself. again just my opinion

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    1. Hi Hebah - Just curious - Why do you feel that an abaya has to look like something covering a dress? Why do you feel women should have to wear at least 2 layers of clothing in this heat? As long as the clothing is modest and appropriate, why shouldn't we be allowed to just wear a dress without another layer on top of it?

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    2. It is a question of modesty and of course, once again, that depends on people.

      You will notice that men in KSA wear sarouels under their thobes. They wear t shirt as well. So 2 layers of clothing.

      I hear you when you say that some men are not doing that and actually have transparent clothing or pajamas kind of outfit.

      Ah ! No one is perfect and may Allah guides us all.

      In'sha'Allah, we can see and focus and be inspired by the ones that act good. Not the ones that act poorly. And maybe the people acting bad on something act good on something else.

      Allah knows what is in ones hearts.

      Same for the women.

      Personally, when it is summer, I will go a beige or brown abaya with sarouel and tshirt under it.

      It is so light, like a wind around me. Maybe there are different kinds of fabrics ... ?

      I recommand you to watch the lecture of sister Aminah Assilmi (may Allah grants her Jennah) about the hijab. It is so refreshing : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kdxj_ygsCPQ

      Also, I have many muslims friends wearing a long skirt + long top (no abaya). The idea is to be wearing large clothes and long clothes. And clothes that are different that the ones you would use in your private life.

      The idea is to be identify as Muslims women.

      I believe it is a rule vast enough to allow personal expression ^^ (at least outside of KSA).

      Abaya please me because it removes a large part of showing off, signs of wealth and allow me to concentrate on my manners and character. It humbles me.

      My mind is not on the way I look but on the way I act.

      Alhamdulelah.

      Also, how great to remove it when I reach home or any women only circles, just like a jacket. I like that I have my regular clothes under it. It feels effortless.

      Do I make sense ?

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  12. Hi Susie. if people are just going to be wearing decent clothes, then that's another perception as well. however is if a person is going to wear an abayah that is colorful abayah, to cover up something else that's colorful, they might as well not wear the abayah at all, that's just what I think.

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  13. I've seen some traditional Saudi women's wear from older eras. Very colorful and beautiful. It was obviously okay then...why not now?

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  14. Did you receive my second comment Dear Susie ?

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  15. wow wow wow
    The Abaya is so beautifull

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  16. Codified, government enforced misogyny. Very sad.

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  17. Susie, I love your profile photo. These abayas are gorgeous! I remember when we were in Jordan in a Bedoin tent. I asked about the black color being cruel for women in the hot sun. Our male guide said women really didn't mind because the material was very lightweight and they were probably more comfortable than the men. Riiiiight.... I really couldn't believe that for a minute.

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    1. Hi Kay! It's so nice to hear from you. White is so much cooler to wear in the heat, and that's what the men here traditionally wear. Many of the black abayas available are not made of lightweight materials. That guy just made up what he said to you. It's far more uncomfortable for women out wearing black in the heat.

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  18. Hello from Texas...USA
    I just want to cry reading your post...Your holy book has been hi-jacked and is being used for personal power. I am so Sorry you must live like this. I remember in the 1970's when Saudi Arabia was just like us...dresses, parties, driving, school, work, college....on and on...
    no more....They are trying to infiltrate us here as well...
    (((hug)))

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  19. I wear black abayas (and coloured ones---and who shouldn't since Islam lets women wear colours and the Prophet's (S.A.W) own wives did wear yellow and blue?) and don't find them hot in certain fabrics, especially since under them I can wear pajamas, mini shorts or skirt, tank top etc... But in Islam there is nothing forcing hijab. Or jilbab (the abaya). It is between a woman and ALlah, and that's how it should be.

    And this is from a woman who loves black abayas in sun or rain (I only really love niqab though when I am Canada and it is sooooo sooo cold out).

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  20. The qu'ran does say Muslim women should wear jilbab. Scholars agree jilbab is loose fitting, not see-through and not overly pretentious or show-offey or perfumed. Qu'ran also says, that khimar (the headress) should cover the chest. That's about it for women's dress code of clothing requirements.

    And the reason men have less requirement than women is so that the men were free to spend from their means on their women, instead of themselves, if they were poor. But my husband (Omani) wears underwear, like the southern saudi wrap skirt/kilt over it, undershirt, and white dishdasha, but I have worn dishdasha for men here in Oman, and the fabric is horrible compared to say, nida black abay fabric... And my shayla (black scarf) is so much lighter than my husband's cashmere musayr/turban ya know? I think it depends on the man. But of course, if my husband went about shirtless with shorts I'd totally be tempted top throw of abaya and say to hell with it, I am wearing t shirts and skirts all the time, if I didn't wear jilbab for the sake of Allah, not for my husband's culture.

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  21. Hebah: Actually the Qu'ran says the jilbab is so that women will be KNOWN and recognized as Muslim. It says nothing about making them unnoticebale:). Of course, we should avoid ephasizing sexy curves, and expensive embelishments (although embellishment itself is not forbidden)--- but black abayas can be tight, see-through, etc... and coloured abayas plainer, looser---depends on the intention of the wearer right?

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  22. Estelle: That hadith about looking like crows (reference Sahih AL Bukhari specifically) is in context to the revelation of the headscarf/khimar and the dress of the women of Ansaar, which was actually navy blue not black. And interesting in context, about crows, is crows in Saudi Arabia, and Oman and other Gulf states, can have a head of a different colour than the body, which is perhaps evidence to suggest academically, that khimar does not have to be face covering, or part of the jilbab itself, although Aisha R.A. from Mecca, not Madinah like the women of Ansaar, wore here jilbab half covering her face, instead of wearing a seperate headdress, like the women of Ansaar. This is enforced partially, through regional dress of later time period, from Mecca and Madinah, available in galleries in London, UK, if you are interested:). I really, really love history, and hijab was a subject I wrote a few academic essays on, including, jilbab and khimar. However, I don't know how this is possible, since the fiqh used in Saudi itself is excellent, but scholars like to take hadith out of context there, such as saying a woman wore niqab (who was actually beaten by her husband and going to the Prophet) and using this hadith for evidence that niqab the veil must be worn over the face is ironic, since it would then negate black asa colour, since green would have to be the colour of the woman's face veil, right?: however, green was the colour of her headscarf, and green was the colour of her skin due to bruising, if one is to read the hadith in entirety, as narrated by Aicha R.A. (wife of the Prophet Mohammed, s.a.w, who herself commonly wore clothes died with saffron---a yellow or red colour). Also, additional hadith reveal that the jilbab must cover only to the mid calf--- although lowering it the feet was made permissable for modesty sake (narrated by Um Salamah R.A.).

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  23. I can't believe you made those. Wish I had your skills.
    Even in the west we see black as a nice flattering color on men and women. I see no difference here. My husband says black looks sleek, and clean, no matter what form it comes in. I wear black abayas back home in Portland, OR all the time, and get wonderful compliments from non-Muslims.
    When everyone wears a uniform, its an equalizer. It keeps people from focusing on your exterior. In Saudi if the norm is black, anyone who varies from that would come off like they are vying for attention which is not a good look for a pious Muslimah. Also it's probably the least materialistic fashion statement I've seen, and although we have an extreme need to express ourselves materialistically in the West, and play into many stereotypes (he/she looks like a business man, hippie, homeless person, valley girl, rich, poor) I admire that those snap judgments are taken away from me in Saudi and I'm forced to look at the person inside. I treat everyone the same, because you never know who you might be talking to.

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