Sunday, March 24, 2013

Abaya: Friend or Foe

I’ve been living in Saudi Arabia for two months now and still cannot decide how I feel about the requirement by law to wear an Abaya, the black cloak that conceals my body, except my head, hands, and feet, from male onlookers.  And it’s not the rules, per say, that are an issue.  I have no problem respecting the laws, religion, and culture of the country that I am a guest in.  It’s the various factors that make wearing an abaya a big fat pain in the rear “awrah” (translation: intimate parts).  That being said, there are also some definite up-sides to having just one thing to wear when going out in public.
So, what is this abaya I speak of?  Basically, it’s a big black cloak with arms that is so anti-revealing that I’m sure every teenage daughter’s father wishes it was a requirement in their country.  Believe me, there is absolutely nothing flattering about an abaya.  Especially when you have a small head and a long neck like me.  I look like “Harry the Hunter,” the tiny-headed character on Beetlejuice, when I wear mine.  

According to Wikipedia,  the  rationale of all this covering up comes from the Qur'an and Hadith.  It was known that the wives of the Prophet Muhammad covered themselves around men they did not know.  Often the Quranic quote, "O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters, and the believing women, to cover themselves with a loose garment. They will thus be recognized and no harm will come to them" (Qur'an 33:59)

Part of the “cover-up” requirement in Saudi Arabia is also for women to cover their hair (p.s. It is not a requirement for Saudi women to cover their face.  This is something they choose to do.), although this doesn’t seem to be as much of a rule for non-muslim women.  We tend to not wear a scarf unless the muttawa (religious police) are around.  In fact, since I’ve been here, I’ve only felt the need to wear my head-scarf once.  This was when I went on a jaunt around the downtown of Riyadh with my friends.  There were no muttawa around, but men aren’t used to seeing women who are not completely covered.  Since we were in such a very public space we thought it best to play it safe.  Plus, for me, it’s just plain fun to get in the spirit of the place.  How often do I get to immerse myself in someone else’s culture for any length of time?  And the option of dressing up like a Muslim woman for Halloween just seems disrespectful to me.

Joking around on Olaya Street with my abaya and headscarf.
Being a westerner and getting away with not covering my hair while at a mall

From the beginning of my Saudi Arabian adventure, the Abaya presented as a bit of a problem.  I was going to have to wear one coming off of the plane.  So, where the crap do I get an abaya in Canada?  Alternatively, I could’ve worn a long jacket and loose pants upon arrival and bought an abaya as soon as possible, but I was already so overpacked that I didn’t want to have to try to fit a coat that I’d never wear again into my carry-on luggage.  Luckily, during my Christmas visit in Ottawa to see my lovely Malgosia, her awesome roommate, Christina, remembered passing by a Muslim clothing store at one time.  We looked it up and, low and behold, I had found the answer to my abaya problem.  Off we went to find and purchase the most unflattering piece of apparel that would ever grace my body.  And believe me, I had worn many unflattering pieces of clothing in the past. I did grow up in the era of hyper-colour shirts and wearing clothes backwards after all.

So, now I’m in Saudi Arabia and have my ugly abaya that I thought, to my chagrin, I’d have to wear every time I left my compound or was not in the confines of my workplace.  This is in fact the case but, as it turns out, the majority of my time is not spent outside of these places.  And, since my driver comes into the compound to pick me up, I don’t even need to wear my abaya on my way to the car.  This is great!  Except, it makes remembering to wear my abaya a surprisingly difficult task when I actually am heading out into the public realm.  Every time that I’ve gotten ready to go on a shopping outing or to a restaurant I have actively stood in front of my closet and contemplated what I will wear for a good five minutes before realizing that it doesn’t matter what I wear.  I could, in fact, wear my bra and underwear under my abaya and nobody would know.  From what I’ve heard, many women actually do this, especially during the extremely hot summers here.

"Have a Namaste" from
There is a convenience factor to wearing an abaya, as my lack of need to worry about what I will wear can attest to.  However, I'm not hot on the lack of individuality that it creates.  I’m not typically one to use my clothing to express my personality to any great degree.  I do, however, really enjoy wearing fun t-shirts from cool shops (shout out to and and now I don’t get to do this as often as I’d like.  And abayas involve a very large amount of material to deal with.  They’re long and annoying when going up and down stairs and a huge worry of mine when I’m stepping on to and off of an escalator.  But, the most annoying part of wearing an abaya is the bathroom factor.

Oh how I’ve cursed my abaya when nature calls.  This was especially the case recently when I was getting my health check-up for my iqama (Saudi Arabian identification card).  I was required to give a urine sample.  No biggie in any other environment.  But, being in a sketchy clinic with a not-so-clean-super-tiny bathroom stall with no actual toilet seat on the toilet, getting a urine sample with oodles of black material draping from my shoulders to my legs was a serious challenge.  There were no hooks to hang my abaya on if I took it off.  I certainly did not want to put it on the wet and dirty floor.  Somehow I had to manage lifting and holding my abaya up whilst hovering over the seatless toilet, holding the sample cup in a way to get a proper sample without ‘soiling’ my hands, avoid having my abaya drop into the toilet water, and actually see what I was doing with said sample cup while wads of black material blocked my view.  Picture the photos you’ve seen of brides adorably and humourously maneuvering in a bathroom stall with their bridesmaids holding mounds of white satin and lace out of the way.  Except the material was black, I had no one to help me hold it out of the way, and you can rest assured that there was nothing adorable about it.  The situation, however, was definitely humourous. 

Getting back to the lack of individuality factor of wearing an abaya, I am actually kind of lying.  As my cousin, Jennifer, has told me, “necessity breeds invention,” and my how the ladies of Saudi Arabia are inventive.  Yes, black is the primary colour of an abaya, but there’s nothing stopping the ladies from adding a good bling factor to it.  Sometimes it can get a little extravagant and it has been fun for me to see what some of the women end up choosing to spice things up.  It got me thinking about what I would do if I was to get my own abaya made.  And then, one of the loveliest girls in Riyadh, my friend Munira, helped me experience this very thing.  Munira took me to an abaya shop that she and her family had been going to for the last 20 years.  It didn’t take long before I was being draped in black and getting measured for my very own custom abaya.  I was encouraged to walk amongst the shop and look at all the different styles of abayas and the various embroideries and glittery embellishments that I could choose to add to my very own abaya.

The starting point of my soon-to-be-custom-made abaya
There were large glittering orange suns gracing the front of one, flowing sleeves with flowery black lace streaming from the cuffs on another, empire waists, pleated skirts, embroidered designs on the backs and the hems, beautiful bright colours peaking out from the linings and along the collars.  It was a paradise of semi-subtle attire enhancement.  It was exciting and empowering to be able to choose a little from column A, and a little from column B.  There was so much to choose from that I decided one abaya was not going to be enough.  I wanted bling for my nights out.  I wanted simple bits of embroidered individuality for those times that I was in public while working and needed a professional yet functional abaya that suited working with a child.  Oh my, this was beginning to be an expensive venture.  I decided, finally, on an abaya that had a little bit of bling and a whole lot of simple style.  Not as functional as it should be to work with a child as I chose long draping sleeves, but no matter.  I don’t go outside of my workplace walls very often.  The store clerk was amazing and talked at length with Munira as she translated my polite English demands into Arabic.  He scribbled all of my specifics onto a sheet for the tailor to use as his recipe to create my first authentic piece of Saudi life.  I gave him my payment and he assured me, via Munira’s translation, that it would be completed in five days.  I clapped my hands in excitement and practically skipped out of the store with Munira giggling as she walked behind me.  And, right on time, my very own abaya made it to it's new home on the day I was to attend an Embassy of France party.  I felt like a Saudi queen walking along the streets of the Diplomatic Quarter (where all the embassies are located) wearing it.

In Joy,


  1. We need a picture of you in it, Bonnie! Such a great idea the women have. I like the idea of the little bits of colour at the edges. If you're shopping now, you must be feeling more at home. -Sheryl-Lynn

  2. Oh my gosh Bonnie ~ that was awesome. I am more thankful for my jeans and sweaters as you described your personal abaya. I can hardly wait to get into my capris and t-shirts but alas that will have to wait as the temperature still insists on dipping beyond the zero mark and the frost on the pumpkin (okay~windshield) tells me to keep the sweaters in the "ready" position. Soon ~ very soon it will be warm enough to enjoy the sandals and kayaking on the creek. Hugs and tons of love.

  3. Hi Bonnie, neat article about the abayas and it's great to see pics of you as well. Enjoy your abaya and the bling, it's quite fascinating.

    with honor,


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.