When Shireena Al Nowais was young she couldn’t wait to put on the abaya; now her young daughter is faced with a choice
I love my abaya, but will it be embraced by my daughter?
As a young girl, I used to watch my mother and aunts putting on their abayas before leaving the house, so I think I always associated the garment with being an adult. So, naturally, I was looking forward to finally being allowed to wear one.
I clearly remember the first time – I was 14, it was my first day of eighth grade, and I had asked my mum during the summer holidays if I could wear an abaya because “all my friends were doing it”.
In the two minutes that I had my abaya on, walking from the car park to the school, I remember feeling like I was on top of the world and that I was finally a young woman. We were not allowed to wear abayas within the school grounds, so we had to roll them up and stuff them in our bags before classes. This meant it was unnecessary to wear it in the first place but, heck, I was an adult now and could do what I wanted. I loved being part of that exclusive club, and I still do.
Many Emirati women don’t wear their abayas abroad, so as soon as the plane takes off, we immediately roll up our abayas and put them in our hand luggage, only to bring them out again a few minutes before the plane lands in the UAE. I say roll because I literally roll it up so that it doesn’t getwrinkled. It is always embarrassing when I run into someone I know on the plane, and I have been asked about this many times by Westerners who are shocked to see Emiratis go from wearing the abaya to not wearing it in a matter of minutes.
All in all, I have to admit that I love wearing the abaya – even if it is, sometimes, for all the wrong reasons (like not having to worry about what I wear underneath – I think the majority of us mothers do the school run every morning with our pyjamas on beneath our abayas). But fast-forward a few years and I overhear my mother in-law telling my 10-year-old daughter that she’s going to have to wear an abaya soon, and that she is going to take her to buy her first one. “No! I’m never going to wear the abaya, how will I run?” was my daughter’s immediate response. “Why should I wear it? None of my friends wear it,” she adds.
“None of your friends are Emirati. You are in a British school. You have to wear it because you are Emirati and it is ‘aeib’ [shameful] not to wear it. You have to wear it like your mama and me,” her grandmother responds. And for the first time in what feels like eternity, it hits me: why does my daughter “have” to wear an abaya?
While I love my abaya for various reasons, I don’t think I can confidently tell my daughters that they have to wear the abaya just because they are Emirati. I’ll have to settle with: “Because I said so and as long as you are living under my roof, you have to do what I tell you to do.”
Shireena Al Nowais is The National’s Chief National Reporter