From hoodie to faux fur: the abaya experience
I recently visited Saudi Arabia and had a crash course in wearing the abaya. It confused the hell out of me, mostly because it upended so many beliefs I had built up over the years about this black outer garment, and, more importantly, about Saudi women who are mandated to wear it. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view,” goes that famous line from To Kill A Mockingbird. “… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it”. I suppose some version of that happened to me—just slipping into an abaya for a few days made me discover that this compulsory cover-up is as much about religious codes as it is about fashion, culture, self-expression, sisterhood, a whole inner life of colourful gaiety that thrives just beneath the enveloping blackness. As for the Saudi women I met, they were easily the most spirited and spunky bunch I have encountered anywhere in the world, despite the numerous restrictions they deal with. Or, perhaps, because of them.
I know I am stepping into contentious territory because to the world at large—yours truly included—the abaya has stood for suppression of women’s rights, of being out of touch with the 21st century, of forcing (especially in Saudi Arabia) rather than allowing free choice. But I found that the reality of wearing it is not so black and white—and it is these nuances, these umpteen shades of grey, that I hope to share with you here.
Just shopping for the abaya—in Dubai Mall’s speciality store Mauzan—was an eye-opener. It is a luxuriously laid out shop, with a line-up of very elegant and exquisitely embellished abayas. You feel emotionally tripped up right there—you are expecting to be ensconced in an oppressive black blob, but what you encounter instead is beauty. The fabric is soft and lush, the garment perfectly constructed, the embroidery delicate and tasteful, and you stand in front of the mirror, and guiltily absorb its luxuriousness with a twinge of pleasure. The embellishment can vary from relatively simple embroidery in muted colours, to fairly intense work with lace, laser-cut velvet, sequins, beads, crystals, feathers, even a trimming of faux fur. The garment that obscures also adorns.
How do I choose from the umpteen styles on offer? Most are split open in front (think bathrobe, no belt) and I wonder nervously if this isn’t too daring for Saudi Arabia? Some have a few snap buttons that close till the waist, but from there downwards they flap open as I walk, my jeans-covered legs flashing through. Shouldn’t the abaya be buttoned up till the floor? I summon the help of the lady in the next dressing room, who, as luck would have it, is from Saudi Arabia, a young mother, stunning face, short wavy hair, her child in a stroller beside her. She pooh-poohs my prudish concerns, insisting that times have changed, and I am being overly conservative (and a fashion duffer, I suspect from her tone) in wanting top to bottom closure. Finally, she has had it with my weak-kneed questions, and, in one dramatic gesture, rips open all the buttons of her abaya and says, here, that’s how you wear the abaya in Saudi Arabia, fully open in the front. I gasp, pushing away imaginary fears of religious police catching me, while she grins and adds, don’t cover your head either, it’s not necessary any more.
She is right about the head-covering advice—although almost all Saudi women cover their heads, a small number are beginning to give it a pass. I certainly didn’t do it, either in Jeddah or even Riyadh, which has a more conservative reputation. Some women cover their face as well, leaving just the eyes visible, but chatting with them I realize that it is more out of habit than compulsion—some said they had considered going bare-faced, but simply didn’t feel comfortable. It is their culture. It was interesting to watch what happened on the plane ride back to Dubai—you witnessed the whole spectrum: from women who discarded the abaya totally to women who kept everything on, even the face cover.
Away from the public gaze, a world of joyous colour and sartorial extravagance exists, and I got a peep into it at the mall at Kingdom Centre (the bottle-opener-shaped building, the tallest in Riyadh) which very thoughtfully has a women’s-only floor called Ladies Kingdom. It feels surreal, as if you have entered a secret world where women go sans abaya, and you marvel at the sight of women in everyday clothes. The floor comprises luxury brand stores—Chanel, Armani, Valentino, for example—several multi-brand stores with long dresses and evening gowns, some abaya stores, cafés, etc. The dresses catch my eye, for they are red-carpet worthy, brands like Oscar de la Renta and Marchesa, as also the New York-based Indian brand Sachin & Babi, and the cuts are not necessarily modest, as if showing skin has suddenly lost its taboo. The abayas here also take a turn for the glamorous—what do you make of a “hoodie” abaya in rich black velvet with an LV monogrammed lining in bright orange?
The big learning for me is that the abaya in no way defines Saudi women. The women I met were a joy to chat with—independent thinking, strong opinions, spirited, generous, fun loving. Many of them had studied abroad in the US, UK—on government scholarships—and they were clearly very talented and impactful in the workplace. They faced constraints—the most annoying seemed to be the “male guardianship” law whereby permission is needed from a father, husband, brother, even son, for various activities, for example, travel—but I found their spirit amazing. Without exception, it was positive and hopeful, even defiant, as if nothing could restrain them.
Western fashion brands are re-examining their stance towards the abaya and the broader $44 billion (around Rs2.8 trillion) spending on “modest fashion” by Muslim women. For example, Dolce & Gabbana now carries a line of colourful over-the-top abayas (prices range from AED20,000-40,000, about Rs3.5-7 lakh). Perhaps it’s time we re-examine our feelings too.
Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult Of The Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury.
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