x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

My Life: What my abaya-less wardrobe says about me

What you wear can be a conundrum after years in an abaya

I never stood in front of the mirror for hours deciding what to wear, how to wear it and more importantly, what it said about me. I wore the abaya, and whatever I wore underneath didn't matter. My guardian picked my abayas, and thus decided how I should appear to the world. My abayas were simple and subtle and portrayed me as conservative. I found comfort in that arrangement. The outer layer conformed to, and respected norms, and in return demanded respect. Whatever I wore underneath was my business, no one else's. Both worlds meshed.

I don't wear the abaya here in London. Nor do I have my guardian picking my clothes. There are no societal norms for me to adhere to. The new rules I live by are ones I struggle with daily, just as I struggle through a pile of clothes. A pair of jeans would fit, but the shirt I thought it matched would not. Occasionally, I could spend an hour or more trying to reach that imagined peace that I was dressed well enough to leave the comfort of my flat.

Some of my clothes were given to me. Some I fell in love with at first sight and couldn't resist. Others I don't know how I got. Some of my older clothes no longer fit; sometimes I wish they would and sometimes I'm grateful they don't. And some others make me wonder whatever got into me for buying them.

This unstable relationship with my clothes is a reflection of my friendships, my feelings and my approach towards both of them.

I recently confessed to a dear friend that I was finding it difficult to connect with her. We had become so used to texting and emailing that we hardly ever called one another. For her part, she asserted that she preferred to be flexible with her friends and didn't like planning to see them. She preferred to leave things to chance. If we both happened to be in the same place and free at the same time, then we could meet up. However, she didn't understand why I couldn't just call her when I felt like it. To me, it seemed she wasn't going to be, or willing to make herself available; and therefore phone calls represented an immediacy that I was not entitled to, whereas texts meant she could get to them in her own time and respond when she wished to.

A lot of people have lots of clothes. They have their own styles, and are comfortable with the messages those styles send. I lack such creativity, fashion sense, audacity and beautiful diversity with clothes. But I do have an astounding array of friends.

Recently, my friends from the UAE visited me. On one occasion I noticed how different all my friends were, from each other and from me. At one table sat a bunch who ranged between the shy and the audacious, the quiet and the talkative, the introverted and the extroverted. We were British, Chinese, Emirati, Israeli and Japanese. Our politics, beliefs and lifestyles also varied.

Most days I hate the clothes I've put on. They're too tight, too bright, too cold, too warm, with a rip I hadn't noticed earlier. But I am grateful for this flightiness, as it echoes my flexibility in selecting my friends.

The beautiful women I call friends - the ones who sat at table with me recently - could never have come about if I knew what I was getting myself into every day after wearing something comfortable underneath my abaya without a care, or after spending hours trying to be presentable without one. They would never have come about if I had carefully planned what to wear. They came about in the confused process of deciding what to wear, how to wear it and what it suggests about me.


Salma Khalifa is an Emirati graduate student at the London School of Economics and Political Science.