x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

My life: The abaya is not a reflection of one's values

Fatima Al Shamsi on why the abaya is now a fashion accessory.

Near the end of last summer, just after getting back to New York City, I was excited to be grocery shopping at the farmers' market with my roommate again. While we were navigating the food stalls I couldn't help but notice eyes on us. We were both dressed in our lazy Sunday best - jeans, T-shirts and trainers - but we were still managing to attract unwanted male attention. Having returned from Abu Dhabi only a few days earlier, I remember thinking to myself: "I really wish I were wearing an abaya right now".

It's interesting how clothes can affect how people react to you on the streets. An outfit can be more than simply good or bad; the sad reality is that it can also dictate how people interact with you. When I'm in New York and I wear the headscarf when I go to the masjid, I feel free. I think the male predatory instincts are suddenly thrown off. Guys on the street don't know how to approach you. Yet in the Emirates, whenever I go out I tend to wish more often than not that I wasn't wearing the abaya. Wearing an abaya in the UAE does the opposite of detracting from male attention; rather, it seems to encourage it.

For those who haven't realised it, young women in the Emirates and those abroad, whether in London or New York, don't dress that differently. I've noticed that in New York there's more of a casualness to everyday wear compared to the scene in the Emirates. A trip to any mall will reveal that, as a result of globalisation, most of us shop at the same stores or at least have many of the same options available to us. Whether it's at H&M or Zara, in New York or Dubai, it's there.

As a result, what's underneath an abaya in the UAE isn't very different from what you'll see women wearing in New York. But the abaya does add another layer to the complexity of how we present ourselves.

It's a little known fact that the abaya isn't actually a long-held tradition that dates back to when our parents were young. There was a time when the principal reason women wore colourful shaylas (scarves) was to adhere to modesty as prescribed by religion, rather than to go along with a cultural trend.

Today, loose, fitted, coloured, embroidered, bejewelled or just black, the abaya has become more of a fashion accessory. And whereas no one can deny that it's become part of the Emirati culture for women, I think it's fair to say that in most cases it doesn't serve the purpose it was intended for. The abaya is no longer synonymous with anonymity and humility.

I think there is nothing wrong with young women customising the abaya and coming up with new trends. If anything I enjoy coming back every year to see the new styles, some that I like and others I find questionable.

As with any item of clothing, reinvention is expected and encouraged, but I also don't think the abaya should carry the weight it does in our society. I know many young women who would like the option not to wear it, or to be able to wear a headscarf only. Yet it remains socially strange for an Emirati woman to go without it.

I think that a woman who doesn't cover her head in general shouldn't feel peer-pressured to wear the abaya. I really enjoy seeing girls in New York adhering to Islamic tradition in long tunics, jeans and colourful scarves. While I like to wear the abaya when I'm back home, to feel like I'm taking part in the culture, I think the mentality surrounding it needs to be re-examined.

The abaya is an item of clothing like any other fashion article and is not a reflection of one's values.


Fatima Al Shamsi is an Emirati based in New York.