Prior to visiting the United Arab Emirates, I can honestly say that I never expected to wear an abaya, a form of traditional Islamic clothing, ever in my life. Even though I aspire to travel all over the world and experience all different cultures, it just didn’t occur to me before that I might be in a place in which I would wear one. The experience was much different than I anticipated it would be, but in the best way possible.
I was in Abu Dhabi for a few days and planned to visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque with two American friends, Beth and Kelly who live in the UAE. They suggested we wear abayas to the mosque because we were going to have to cover our hair anyway. I had never visited a big mosque before, but with my normal travel enthusiasm, I was totally up for it. At the risk of sounding completely ignorant, I’ll admit something: I wasn’t exactly sure what an abaya was. So I turned to my trusty friend Google and searched it it. Abaya is the term in the Gulf countries for the loose, black, robe-like garment that covers the whole body except the face, hands, and feet (as opposed to the burqa, which covers the face). After scrolling through a few images, I sent my friends a message indicating my hesitation. Ironically, I thought maybe we would look out of place since we were tourists, but my friends assured me that it would be a respectful way to get the full experience.
The abayas Beth owned were detailed with beautiful embroidery and were much like those of the local women. Wearing the abaya was easy, but securing the headscarf, shayla, was no easy task. Thankfully I had Beth and Kelly there to help me! I may have looked like a local if I wasn’t a) tripping over myself or b) messing with my hair under the shayla every five seconds. Needless to say I’m not exactly used to wearing floor-length dresses; I remember nearly falling in my prom dress and tripping over myself all day wearing a saree at my brother’s wedding!
While I certainly don’t know what it’s like to wear traditional Islamic clothing every day of my life, I loved the experience of wearing the abaya for a few hours at the mosque. I felt free of judgment and in the clothing; no one was concerned with what I looked like and I fit in with the crowd. The alternative would have been to wear the mosque’s hooded robes that were not nearly as authentic (or cute). Coming from the US and spending two months in India, I had to change my clothing choices quite a bit. Although I could swing wearing shorts and tank tops in Goa, I spent most of my time in India wearing semi-long kurta tops, leggings, or those baggy pants you can find everywhere in Southeast Asia to avoid any unwanted attention – although it didn’t make a difference in Varanasi. Wearing Islamic clothing in a Gulf country broadened my horizons and opened me up to a culture I previously knew very little about.
I know what you’re thinking still; it sounds easy for me to say that I enjoyed wearing the abaya. I have never had any real clothing restrictions; I’ve always had choice – albeit rather poor clothing choices in my teenage years – but still a choice nonetheless. I can’t imagine what it might feel like to be confined to covering my hair and most of my body in public, especially if I don’t want to, not to mention if it’s blazing hot outside like it was in Abu Dhabi. Islamic women’s fashion in the UAE was remarkable, though. Given any restrictions they may have, most women find a way to look fashionable and fabulous whenever they are out and about. I was actually feeling like I needed to up my game to be on par with these ladies strolling on the beach and in the malls! I imagine that some Muslim women may enjoy the traditional clothing, and some do not. I’ll never be able to understand how it may feel to have to dress a certain way, but I completely respect these customs that preserve their religion. Go on with your beautiful selves, ladies.