Abayas: Faith or fashion?
According to one Internet source, the world’s most expensive abaya was recently appraised at USD 350,000. Designed by a world-famous British fashion house, this abaya was made of real gold and professionally cut diamonds.
The traditional abaya is a simple, black, long-sleeved, robe-like dress that Muslim women wear to conceal their bodies. It usually covers everything except a woman’s face, feet and hands. Sometimes colored abayas will be worn, but even then, earth tones are preferred so as to not attract too much unwanted male attention.
In Prophet Mohammad’s time, abayas were called “khimar” and were compulsory for all women. Again, the idea was to guard women’s bodies from the gazes of strange men.
It is written in the Holy Quran (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 possesses, or their male servants free of physical needs, or small children…”
Today, however, the religious symbolism of the abaya is starting to become confused with its newfound fashion appeal. Many people now think that they are trendy and some men have started to see abayas in a sexual light. Others, however, complain that today’s abayas look more like dresses than hijabs (i.e. veils).
Ishaq Issa from Sana’a wonders why women cover their faces while at the same time wearing attractive abayas. “A woman either wears a respectable abaya or she doesn’t wear one at all. Nowadays, some abayas actually reveal the female figure rather than conceal it. I would never let any members of my family wear such an abaya when going out.”
Saleh Mohammad, another Sanaani, agrees with Issa. “To be honest,” said Mohammad, “girls nowadays actually look prettier with abayas than without. Most modern abayas are either too shiny 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 one anyway?”
In the pre-Islamic urban centers of the Arabian Peninsula, privileged women were the only one’s permitted to cover themselves. The abaya was a sign of wealth and luxury, and it distinguished rich women from the less fortunate and slaves.
Some contemporary abayas are designed to look like short tunics that are worn with leggings, so as to attract non-Muslim clientele. Other times, non-Muslims living in Islamic countries wear the traditional abaya as a sign of cultural respect.
Stephanie Yourey is a young Christian lady who wears the abaya on her way to university. She says that she wears such clothing because it is Yemeni culture and it makes her feel more secure, as people don’t look at her quite as strangely. “I wear the abaya at university because I want to safeguard my reputation and I don’t want people to judge me in a bad way, even though I feel I dress quite modestly underneath,” said Yourey.
“I sometimes think that Yemeni girls who wear tight, shiny and trendy abayas do so because they want to be attractive. I mean, they see attractively dressed girls on TV and it makes them want to look the same. Some abayas actually look like black evening gowns.”
According to Sadeq Al-Wessabi, the owner of an abaya shop at Al-Assahi called Ruwat Fawasel, abaya prices in Yemen tend to range from YR 1,500 to YR 100,000.
“Women from the Gulf countries will often purchase tailor-made abayas of up to YR 50,000. For them, this is much less than what they would pay in their own countries,” said Al-Wessabi.
Muslim women who like to wear designed clothes also want to wear designer abayas. Fashion houses are now starting to shift focus so as to meet the demands of this demographic. An increasing number of websites and fashion shows feature abayas, and some top European labels like Blumarine have showcased models wearing couture abayas.
Rua Ahmed says she wears fashionable abayas not to attract male attention, but rather to feel young and alive. “Why shouldn’t we wear designer abayas?”, asks Ahmed. “Yes, we are Muslim women, but abayas do not define us as being respectful or not. I follow the Quran’s teachings and I heed the Prophet’s sayings. As long as my body is completely covered, I don’t see the reason why I shouldn’t wear shiny abayas or the new stretch abaya. My abayas are black in color and cover my whole body as well. I believe that this is what is required of me as a Muslim women.”
Others like Fatima Mohammad say that they’re aware of when it’s appropriate to wear a fashionable abaya and when it’s better to wear a plain one. “If I’m going shopping,” explained Mohammad, “I usually wear a plain abaya that covers me well because I know I will encounter men on my way. But if I’m going to a wedding or if I’m invited to a friend’s house, then I will definitely wear a nice shiny abaya, since I know for a fact that no men will be at that place.”
In Fatima Mohammad’s opinion, trendy, tight and glittery abayas are more attractive than the more conservative variety and should not be worn at work places or in public, as it is not proper within Islam.