Friday, February 10, 2012

A picture a day: The Abaya

I'm not much of a photographer. I really only take pictures to put in my scrapbook. In case you haven't noticed, I'm more of a writer. BUT, pictures do capture a lot. So I'm going to try and take a picture or two once a day and post them, so you can get a sense of what it is like to be an expat woman living in KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia).

The Abaya

I've written about the abaya, but some of you may not have a clue what it looks like. An abaya is a long, black robe, with long sleeves. It is hot, despite the thin fabric. It is shapeless. I feel like Harry Potter without ANY cool powers like magic. And it is part of my life here.

I know my picture isn't the greatest. You can't see that the abaya goes down to my ankles. This particular abaya has a hood that I can put over my head if I need or want to cover my hair. Saudi women wear abayas like this. I've never seen a Saudi woman without a hijab (a head covering). There are many Saudi women who will wear half veils, covering their nose and mouth. Some veils cover the forehead, nose, mouth, and cheeks, with small slits for eyes. And other veils completely cover the face (no slits or anything).

I personally can't imagine wearing a veil all the time. I find it challenging enough to put on a hot, black abaya over my street clothes in a desert country. Though, in theory, I could be wearing a bathing suit underneath and no one would be the wiser.

One way to distinguish foreign women is that we don't wear a head covering or veil. You can be approached by religious police and be "invited" to cover your hair. This hasn't happened to me, but it is a good practice to have a scarf or hood available at all times when out in public. I've been told by many people that Riyadh, the country's capital, is much more conservative than the rest of the kingdom. Women in other cities can even wear colored abayas. (Wow! So liberal!) Girls who haven't reached puberty generally don't wear abayas. But I have seen little girls wearing abayas. Yesterday, at the mall, my daughter asked if I would get her an abaya. When I asked her why, she said she wanted to look like me.

I don't know all the reasons why Saudi women wear the abaya. I don't care to comment on it until I do have more information.

I do know that no one wears short sleeves here or shorts. I remembered this yesterday when at the mall and realized that my three of my kids were wearing short-sleeved shirts. I think they were the only kids in the entire mall so dressed. When my husband first started going to KSA for business trips, he quickly realized that his short-sleeved shirts were inappropriate. We were able to find him some clothing that would work well in a desert environment but also not offend anyone. Some Saudi men wear robes and head coverings. Others are very stylish in their western clothes.

One thing that I find particularly strange about women wearing the abaya is seeing the clothing displayed in shops. There are a lot of designer shops with very western clothes. Including clothes that would be, according to these modesty standards I hear so much about here, very immodest. I find the contrast interesting. Perhaps in this case, the abaya allows the women to dress as they please without offending the general population or the law.

ETA: Western compounds generally restrict the wearing of abayas on site. I live on a western compound and am free from the restriction in most of my daily life. However, when I go outside the compound walls I always wear the abaya.
ETA: While I don't love wearing an abaya, I get that it is an important religious and cultural custom. I primarily despise wearing a BLACK robe. Black abayas are neither practical nor particularly kind in this desert country where temperatures routinely soar above 100 degrees Farenheit.

I'm sure to post more about the subject, but for now, that's all I've got!


  1. Wow, that is very interesting about the abaya. Do you only wear it when you go out, or do you need to wear it at home too? It sounds so hot and limiting. In some ways it does sound nice, you never have to worry about what you are going to wear. But I think it would be hard to have to wear a vail all the time. Especially the one were there are no slits, I admit, it sounds very oppressive. I am glad you don't have to do that much, but what little you do sounds very respectful. When in Rome...

  2. Very interesting...about the immodest/western clothing in the stores...the contrast is not lost on me.

  3. I edited my post to add an explanation about wearing my abaya on a daily basis. To clarify, most Western compounds (compounds that house Americans and Europeans) tend to restrict the wearing of the abayas within the compound walls. If you are a resident in a compound, you can dress however you like, without having to cover-up. However, once you leave the compound, you must wear an abaya, even in the car. I live on a compound and only wear my abaya when going outside of my compound.

  4. So interesting. After studying plenty now about pioneer clothing, I can see similarities. Long sleeves, ankle length, hat... it was the style, yet it was also practical in protecting the sun. No way did they wear black and I don't think anyone enforced the clothing, it was just cultural/style. I'm curious to know how much is cultural -- would people just do it anyway because it's style and how much is because of enforcement. The black standard reminds me of the Mormon Fundamentalists restricting their colors too. In pioneer days, they wore all sorts of color. Fascinating.

    When I did my student teaching in Samoa, I learned that the thigh was sacred and you covered it. It was rude for foreigners to come in their little swimsuits and expose their upper legs. We were always sure to cover up (I swim/swam in shorts anyway already) to show courtesy. So, it's also interesting seeing that comparison with the short sleeves. Again, I wonder if it's for sun protection or culture or what?? Keep us posted!

  5. I have to say, the sleeves are pretty on the abaya!

  6. I'm really enjoying reading about your adventure.

  7. Emily, Saudi Arabia follows Sharia law, which is based on the Quaran. The dress standards are dictated by Sharia law, which is enforced by religious police. Religious police patrol all public areas and if you aren't following the rules, they can and will confront you. I gather it is a rather unpleasant experience, with a lot of yelling and threats. I don't know how much actual authority the religious police has. I read in my cultural guide that if you are accosted by the religious police to refuse to go with them.

    Children attend Quaran based school here which teaches them the dress standards. So I imagine that there is a definite cultural leaning. I've spoken to a couple of Saudi women about wearing the abaya. They felt that it had religious importance to them.
    While visiting a friend a couple of days ago, I found a book about wearing the hijab and its religious signficance. I'm looking forward to reading it because I hope it will be enlightening.

    Wearing long-sleeved clothing is remarkably practical in this harsh desert country. And wearing loose-fitting clothing is much cooler than tight shirts and pants. I have lupus and have a sun-sensitivity problem which means that I would already wear long-sleeves to protect my skin. I always wear a hat. I just object to the black color of the abaya.

    I forgot to mention that the men wear white robes. There are two different head-dresses men wear. Some are white and others are red and white checked. I asked a Saudi man the difference between the two headdresses and he said that it is merely a "fashion" choice.