x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 February 2018

The abaya: A guide to modest garments around the world

A Saudi cleric's statements about the abaya suggest a law change could be ahead in the Kingdom - so, where else in the world are garments similar to the abaya still regularly worn? 

On Friday, a Saudi cleric said that women in the Kingdom should have the choice of whether or not to wear an abaya.

Sheikh Abduallah Al Mutlaq pointed out that many Muslim women around the world, while dressing modestly, don't actually cover with the long, typically black robe known as an abaya.

"More than 90 per cent of pious Muslim women in the Muslim world do not wear abayas," he said during a television programme on Friday. "So we should not force people to wear abayas." The response to his statement has been predominantly positive.

It is required by law in Saudi that women wear an abaya in public, but, as Sheikh Mutlaq pointed out, many modestly-dressed Muslim women around the world who choose to veil don't actually wear the abaya - which literally translates from Arabic to mean 'to cloak'.

The abaya is as diverse a garment as a dress, a jacket or a blouse, with many different iterations. Here are just some of the countries that have their own form of national dress that bear some similarities to an abaya.

THE GCC: THE ABAYA

The abaya is known as the abayat in Turkey, and is worn by women everywhere from Malaysia to the UK, but it is very commonly worn in the GCC. Just like men in the Gulf region wear different variations of the kandura as national dress, women wear the abaya, which is traditionally (in modern times) black.

Today, however, the abaya can be seen in a range of shades and styles around the GCC: in the UAE, for instance, the garment is sometimes worn as an open-fronted robe with embellishments, and is seen in many different fabrics and fashion-statement shades, including grey, silver and cream.

You can read more about 10 of the best Emirati designers, many of who have their own take on the abaya, here.

MOROCCO: THE DJELLABA

Women in Chefchaouen in northern Morocco. AFP
Women in Chefchaouen in northern Morocco. AFP

Both men and women in Morocco wear the djellaba, a loose-fitting, hooded robe that is traditionally made from wool for winter or cotton for summer. It comes in a variety of hues, and is often striped. The hood, or 'qob', sits on the back of the robe in a markedly pointed shape.

TANZANIA: THE KHANGA

Women on a road in Zanzibar. (Photo by:  BSIP/UIG via Getty Images)
Women on a road in Zanzibar. Getty

Some historians think the style of this bright, patterned piece of light cloth first arrived in Tanzania through Zanzibar, considering it was a strong trading port (and, formerly, part of the Omani Sultanate).

The khanga is commonly worn wrapped over the head and body, but is also used as a sarong, or even as a bag. The cloth often has a phrase printed on it, like 'we love Africa'. At the time of Barack Obama's political rise, many commemoration kangas were created. The pattern normally includes a border around the whole piece of cloth. Kanga is the Swahili word for guinea fowl.

In Zanzibar, men traditionally wear a kanzu, a white robe with a tassel at the collar.

PALESTINE (AND ELSEWHERE): THE JALABIYA

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Another very universal and diverse garment is the long dress called the jalabiya, which is worn in many places where the abaya is also common. This is generally colourful, and often features embroidery. It's worn in daily life everywhere from Palestine to Iraq. In Palestine, for instance, it's often worn for occasions like weddings, and is most traditionally seen in black and red.

IRAN: THE CHADOR

An Iranian woman wearing a chador walks down a street in the capital Tehran on February 7, 2018.
A spate of unprecedented protests against Iran's mandatory headscarves for women have been tiny in number, but have still reignited a debate that has preoccupied the Islamic republic since its founding. / AFP PHOTO / ATTA KENARE
An Iranian woman wearing a chador walks down a street in the capital Tehran on February 7, 2018. AFP

This garment is a full-body-length, largely untailored piece of fabric that is worn over the head and then wrapped around the body - it doesn't have sleeves, but is held closed by its wearer's hands or an elastic band. In Farsi, the word chador translates to 'tent'.

SUDAN: THE TOBE

This garment comes in a variety of colours and patterns and is worn in both North and South Sudan, and is a large piece of lightweight fabric that is wrapped around the waist and then, often, wrapped around the head. Here's a guide to how it's worn:

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Read more:

The debate on abayas marks Saudi Arabia's ongoing transformation

New Dubai abaya lets sunlight in to tackle Vitamin D deficiency

'Covering the body feels more mysterious and appealing': Roksanda in Dubai