written by Safiya Al-Jabry
The traditional abaya is simply a black long-sleeve robe-like dress which Muslim women wear to cover their bodies. The abaya covers the whole body except the face, feet and hands. Sometimes, women wear colored abayas but they are usually earth-tones so that they don’t spawn much attention.
Abayas were called khimar during Prophet Muhammad’s time and were made compulsory for women to cover the woman’s body in front of strange men in order to safe guard women from unwanted male attention.
It is written in the Holy Quraan, Surat Noor verse 31
“And Say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear. Thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands sons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons or their sisters’ sons, or their slaves whom their right hand posses or their male servants free of physical needs, or small children……….”
However, the whole concept of abayas being worn for religion or fashion is beginning to confuse many as nowadays new trendy abayas are becoming attractive and appealing to men. Most men are complaining that some abayas look more like dresses than hijabs (veils).
Ishaq Issa says that he wonders why women cover their faces while at the same time they are wearing appealing abayas. “A woman either wears respectful abaya or simply not wears it at all. Nowadays some abays reveal the woman’s body instead of covering it. I would never let any of my family members wear such an abaya when going out,” he said
Saleh Muhammad agrees with Ishaq. “To be honest, nowadays girls look prettier in abayas than without them. Most of the abayas are either too shinny or too tight. Some of them are even designed to look like dresses. They are not as plain and simple as they are supposed to be, so what’s the point of wearing it anyway,” he said.
In pre Islamic urban centers of the Arabian Peninsula, privileged women were the only ones allowed to cover as a sign of wealth and luxurious lives. These women were distinguished from slave girls who were not allowed to cover themselves and the less fortunate women.
Some of the abayas nowadays are designed as short abayas with leggings which attracts non- Muslim girls and women to wear them. At other times however, non-Muslims living in Islamic countries wear them as a sign of respect and following the culture of the country.
Stephanie Yourey is a Christian young lady who wears abaya on her way to university. She says she does so because it is the Yemeni culture and she feels more secured in abaya as people don’t look at her strangely.
“I put on abaya at the university sometimes for my reputation because I don’t want people to judge me in a bad way even though I feel like I dress up decently underneath the abaya,” she said.
“I sometimes feel like Yemeni girls who wear tight, shinny and trendy abayas do so because they want to be attractive. I mean they see attractive dressed up girls on TV and it makes them want to do the same. Some abayas really look like evening gowns only in black colour.”
According to Sadeq Al Wessabi the owner of Ruwat Fawasel, a local abaya shop at AlAssahi, abaya prices in Yemen range from cheap 1,500 Yemeni Rials to around 100,000 Yemeni Rials.
“Usually, women from gulf countries have their abayas made at prices as high as 50,000 Yemeni Rials. For them, this is much cheaper than prices in their countries,” he said.
Muslim women who like to wear designer clothing also want to wear designer abayas. Fashion designers are now shifting some of their focus to meet the demands of such women. Increasingly, websites and fashion shows are uprising. Some top European labels like Blumarine have showcased models wearing couture abayas.
Rua Ahmed says she wears abayas that are in fashion not to attract male attention but to feel young and alive.
“Why shouldn’t we wear designer abayas? Yes we are Muslim women but abayas do not define us as being respectful or not. I follow the Quraan teachings and the Prophet’s sayings. As long as my body is completely covered, I don’t see the reason as to why I shouldn’t wear shinny abayas, or the new stratch abayas. My abayas are black in color and cover my whole body well. I believe that is what is required of me as a Muslim woman,” she says.
Others like Fatma Mohammad say that they know when to wear fashionable abayas and when to wear plain abayas. “If I’m going to work or shopping, I usually wear plain abaya that cover me well because I know I have I will encounter men on my way. But if I’m going to a wedding or I’m invited to a friend’s house then definitely I will wear a nice shinny abaya since I know for a fact, no man will be at that place.”
Fatma says that in her opinion trendy, tight and glittering abayas are more attractive than protective and should not to be worn at work places or in public because it is not right in Islam.
This article originally appeared at Yemen Times
Sofie Al-Jabry is a Kenya born Yemeni. She has moved to Yemen about eight years ago with her family. She has written for Yemen Times. She is working with a ngo in Sana’a now. She graduated with a BS in Finance from Lebanese International University.