x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Stylish and comfortable

It was 6am and I had five minutes to get ready. So instead of struggling with what to wear, I just grabbed my black abaya and scarf and wore them over my pyjamas and unbrushed hair. "Zero hassle," I smiled to myself as I headed out

It was 6am and I had five minutes to get ready. So instead of struggling with what to wear, I just grabbed my black abaya and scarf and wore them over my pyjamas and unbrushed hair. "Zero hassle," I smiled to myself as I headed out. 

I was in Paris at the time, and I just happened to have my abaya from Saudi Arabia in my suitcase. To my surprise, no one even gave me a second look. I guess people in Paris are used to seeing people from all over the world, including tourists from the Gulf countries.

Tired of reading accounts - or rather rants - by Western women journalists who visit Islamic countries, try on an abaya, then write lengthy articles complaining about how "hot" they felt and the "great suppression" and "discomfort" of Islamic clothes, I am here to write in defence of the abaya. Growing up in Saudi, I had a different abaya for different occasions. I had the "fancy" one with intricate gold lining that I wore when I was invited to weddings or official events. I had the "sporty" plain one that buttoned up, which I wore for trips or pilgrimages. I had the "everyday" abaya I wore when I went out with my family and for the less important events where no one was going to judge me based on my abaya.

In countries like Saudi and the UAE, the abaya defines a woman's social status, and so a lot of care is put into picking the "right one" with the latest designs. At one point in my teenage years, my gang of close friends and I designed and tailored our own special abaya with our logo - a small cat's paw print on the back next to the letter of our first names. Mine had a huge purple "R" across the back made up of shiny purple Swarovski crystals. I even wore a matching purple cap over my headscarf just for kicks.

One of my religious teachers in Saudi used to tell us, whenever we protested about wearing the abaya and scarf to school: "Great fruits like an apple wear protective cover to protect their insides from the harm of the outside." Of course, being teenagers, we would all protest that we were not fruits and customised our abayas to reflect our personalities. There were times when my friends and I would get told off by the morality police in Jeddah for our more outlandish abayas, and on one occasion, a whole group of us were chased down the street by a car packed with stick-carrying religious police because we were running to our cars (we were late - as usual) and our legs were showing as we ran.

For whatever reason, we weren't wearing the buttoned kind of abaya. It wouldn't have been a problem except I was wearing shorts and one of my friends a short skirt as we were heading to a beach birthday party. Needless to say one of their sticks left a mark on my legs. I wore my buttoned up one more often after that. But that was 10 years ago and a lot has changed since then in Saudi. During my last trip to Iran, I noticed the complete opposite reaction to the abaya. There, the women seem to put a disdainful lack of care and effort in the designing of the abaya. In a silent protest against the enforced Islamic dress code, the young women wore either completely plain abayas - or colourful yet conservative Western-style clothes.

In a metro in Tehran, my shoulder was accidentally exposed at one point by the weight of a bag I was carrying. You could cut the tension with a knife, with both males and females staring at my naked shoulder as the abaya slipped down. Many years ago, an exposed ankle had the same effect in Saudi. Not any more. I have worn an abaya for a handful of occasions here in the UAE, partly out of respect for the families who had invited me to visit (if they were more conservative), and partly for my own comfort. I just feel protected in it.

Even though it doesn't stop men from staring and cat calling, I do feel that an abaya somehow empowers me when I am in the Gulf. I couldn't fully explain why, so I asked around among female friends and colleagues for why they wore theirs. The most common answer I received was that an abaya is "comfortable". "I just feel comfortable in it; it is part of my identity," said one of my Emirati friends.

I heard the same comment made by Emirati men about the kandura. While I have no idea who decided that women should be in black and men in white, I have no complaints. Black has remarkable slimming powers - and it goes well with any purse or pair of shoes. @Email:rghazal@thenational.ae