The abaya is more than a mere fashion statement in the Arab world.
“The abaya is a cultural and religious symbol. It doesn’t just fit the criteria for Islamic dress code but it is also an elegant and stylish cultural symbol,” freshman Mahrah Al Quasimi said.
For some students, like freshman Maryam Hassani, wearing the abaya is both religious and cultural.
“It serves its function as being religious because it covers you, but nowadays, it’s mostly cultural because you get them in different styles, meaning that some are tight, which does not necessarily support religion,” Hassani said.
For others, the abaya has expanded into other realms.
“Right now, the foundation of our [Emirati] culture is intertwined with our religion, with Islam, so yes, I would say that the abaya has expanded beyond its religious context,” freshman Abdulla Al-Mutawa said.
Omar Al Qurum, longtime shop-owner at Madinat Zayed, explained the religious context behind traditional abayas.
“Before, Muslim women wore [the abaya] because it does not reveal anything underneath due to its black color. It was originally connected to Islam and it fulfilled a purpose of not revealing anything … The first abayas were made from one piece, both for the head and the body. It went all the way to the floor and it covered both the head and the body,” said Al Qurum, who has been working with abayas for more than twenty years.
Nowadays, abayas can be made of several parts rather than just one single piece.
“The Niqab can also be a part of an abaya,” added Al Qurum. “It is made of cloth or from [a] special type of plastic which is then wrapped in material. Its purpose is to cover all of your face, except the eyes.”
The black color of the abaya has also been a topic of discussion.
“I’ve heard a story about a merchant who sold abayas. Right now, we know that black is not the best color in the heat, but during that time the merchant was mainly intent on gaining a profit, so he sold black abayas to everyone, and it became popular in this region,” Al-Mutawa said.
The abaya is also one of the cultural elements that countries in the Gulf hold in common.
“There are a lot of similarities between the cultures in the Gulf region, and the abaya is one of them,” said Al Quasimi.
“The abaya is not only worn by [Emirati] women but also [by women of] other Gulf countries, but the colors worn in other countries are not limited to black, whereas in the Emirates black is the main color,” added Al Quasimi.
Although Islam mandates that women should cover themselves from being seen by men who are not their kin, the abaya itself is unique to this region.
Although reasons for wearing the abaya may vary slightly from woman to woman, the most compelling motivation stems from a mixture of religion and culture.
“When I wear an abaya, I feel connected to my religion, my culture and my ethnicity,” said Hassani. “Most Emiratis will wear an abaya, thus it connects to your identity. In a sense, [when] you see someone else wearing an abaya, you can identify with them. You have something similar.”
“The abaya, to me, is my sign of respect and dignity,” said Ahlam Al Quasim. “Without my modesty, physical and mental, I don't feel like I'm respecting my body in the way that I should because it's a gift from God.”
Emirati women are the only ones to wear the traditional black abaya in the UAE because, in some cases, the abaya can be mandatory and thus integrated into everyday life.
“If you want to go to certain places, you have to wear an abaya, even though you’re not a local or a Muslim,” said shop owner Muhammad Zahed. “It also serves as a uniform. For example, if you work in certain banks, you have to wear an abaya every day … as a formal suit.”
The abaya can act not only as a uniform dress code but also to diminish divisions between social classes.
“I believe that it’s similar to a school uniform in the sense that it’s harder to make clearer socio-economical distinctions,” said Al Quasimi. “It creates a greater sense of equality amongst women because no matter how different the design of an abaya is, the basis of it is still the same. That being said, it is possible to make distinctions, but with the abaya it takes a little more effort from the observer’s side to notice the dividing line.”
One of the most telling distinctions is how luxurious, and thus how expensive, the abaya is. For shop owners and tailors, the price is dependent on small decorative details.
“The more work you put into an abaya, the more expensive it is,” said Zahed. “ It depends on the stiches and the stones. The more stones and decorations you have on your abaya, the more expensive it is.”
“It also depends on the material of the abaya,” added Al Qurum. “For example, chiffon is more expensive than some other materials like crepe.”
The abaya, whether classically simple or with a twist of pricey detail, can merge age-old religious and cultural symbols with contemporary style.
“One is never overdressed or underdressed in an elegant black abaya,” said Al Quasimi. “I took inspiration from Karl Lagerfeld’s quote, ‘One is never overdressed or underdressed with a little black dress’. And emiratified it.”
Emina Osmandzikovic is a contributing writer. Email her at [email protected]