A Cosmopolitan Islam: The Abaya as Fashion
Author: Eaman L. Sarwar, 2017.
“The traditional abaya serves as a symbol of Islamic identity and national dress for women of the Persian Gulf region of the Arabian Peninsula…”
Image is of Eaman L. Sarwar in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Photo provided by Eaman L. Sarwar.
“It is overly simplistic to think that modernity and globalization are always women-friendly progressive forces and that tradition implies holding women back…The tidy division of the world into “the modern” and “the traditional” (aka “the backward”) is a division that serves the interests of modern champions of globalization (mainly the US and European governments). Yet this tidy division is neither a tidy nor a hard distinction” (Al- Malki 246).
The traditional abaya serves as a symbol of Islamic identity and national dress for women of the Persian Gulf region of the Arabian Peninsula. The black loose-fitting garment became prevalent in the early 1930s in Saudi Arabia, when King Abdul Aziz Al Saud circulated them to tribal leaders. The abaya was later imposed as part of the official dress code by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (Almazroiu). The abaya has since transformed into the abaya-as-fashion, a stylish, glamorous, and personalized robe for women of the Gulf region. The Gulf states have set out a vision and goal to become highly developed and modernized nations, while still preserving their national identity. The United Arab Emirates National Vision of 2021, and Qatar’s National Vision of 2030, are examples of national agendas which are guided by underlying Islamic values and principles. These nations provide a backdrop to study the delicate balance that must be struck between Islamic tradition and the increasing influence of westernization. This paper will explore to what extent the abaya, worn by women of the Gulf states, is being used as a vehicle to express the influence of western culture and style, while also expressing religious devoutness. Further, this paper will outline the evolution of the abaya and its transcendence over national boundaries under the backdrop of globalization.
Contours of the Issue
The abaya is a black loose-fitted robe which covers the entire body, except for the head, hands, and feet. The origins of the abaya can be traced back to Turkey, Syria, and Iraq under a century ago. The abaya, which serves as an outer garment for women, was considered consistent with the interpretation of verses of the Qur’an (Islamic Holy Book), and the hadith (traditions of Prophet Muhammad). Below are verses of the Qur’an which concern the dress and modesty of women:
“O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves (part) of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful (33:59)”.
“And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms…(24:31)”.
“O children of Adam, We have bestowed upon you clothing to conceal your private parts and as adornment. But the clothing of righteousness-that is best. That is from the signs of Allah that perhaps they will remember (7:26)”.
The first verse above has given Islamic jurists justification that the abaya is an appropriate outer garment which hangs loosely over women. The verses also suggest that women should not only not reveal private parts, but dress and behave modestly. All three verses however, are ambiguous in what exactly a woman should wear, and how modesty is defined. This leaves interpretation of what constitutes appropriate dress for women in Islam to Islamic scholars and jurists, who may fall anywhere on the spectrum from conservative to liberal).
The hadith, which in English translates to story, are the sayings and practices of the Prophet Muhammad, narrated by those who heard and observed him. As such, it is the history of the time during which Prophet Muhammed lived among the people of the hijaz region of the Arabian Peninsula. In Book 32 of the hadith, in context of when the following verse was revealed, “tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves (part) of their outer garments”, it is narrated that “women walked to prayers at dawn looking like crows” (Hadith and the Prophet Muhammad). This narrative of the women of Prophet Muhammad’s time as resembling crows has resulted in justification of the abaya by scholars, who view the black loose robe to be similar in color and shape to what women must have worn during the Prophets’ time. Other scholars however, view the verse as a metaphor to describe how women may have resembled crows due to lack of light at dawn. Nonetheless, most scholars of Islam view the abaya as appropriate dress for women, due to the garment being loose and concealing the shape of the body. Scholar of Islamic studies, Leila Ahmed states, “the garments, of whatever style, are intended to conform to the Islamic requirement that dress be modest, that it is not sexually enticing; the mandate applies to both men and women. It is generally taken to mean robes or loose-fitting, long sleeved, ankle-length garments that do not reveal the contours of the body” (Ahmed 220). This school of thought is shared by most Islamic scholars, validating that the abaya is a modest dress for women.
In the early twentieth-century, European-style dress spread throughout the urban cities of the Middle East, however the 1970s “brought widespread disillusionment with Western models of development to the region, with a sociopolitical backlash against secular, Western-led development gaining momentum throughout the 1980s and 1990s” (Trainer 7). The backlash was met with women embracing more modest clothing, such as the shayla (headscarf) and abaya. In the Gulf states, the abaya and shayla represent a dress code which is rooted in Islamic tradition and culture. Particularly, in “the modern nation of the United Arab Emirates, the abaya and shayla possess powerful symbolic status for female Emiratis: they signal adherence to tradition, culture, and religion, as well as access to the privileges of “belonging” as citizens to the UAE” (Trainer 7). This suggests that the abaya in the UAE is a symbol of national identity, and citizens who dress in the abaya, are in effect performing their national duty.
The distinction between the traditional abaya and the abaya-as-fashion, can be understood by the distinguishing term fashion. Fashion is dress which is “characterized by rapidly changing styles, relies on continuous consumption, and depends on certain technological advances” (Trainer 7). Islamic fashion specifically may refer to “fashion shows, web-based clothing stores, design competitions, expensive specialty shops, and street market vendors; it may refer to clothing designed specifically for Muslim women or to Western-style clothing purchased from Western chains and layered in specific ways” (Trainer 6). This presents the abaya-as- fashion as a departure from the traditional plain black loose-fitting abaya, to a more personalized abaya, one which may be sheer in fabric, tight fitting, embellished with crystals, and tailored to the wearer’s individuality. This fashionable abaya, which can be understood as an adaption of the traditional abaya, still retains its fundamental purpose of being modest in dress and concealing ones’ private parts. The next section, will explore ways in which the abaya is being used as a vehicle to express the accommodation and influence of western culture and style.
In looking at the influence of westernization on the abaya, I focused on the work of Sarah Trainer in Piety, Glamour and Protests. Trainer studied the fashion choices and performances of female college students in the UAE; and the branding of the abaya at the local (Gulf nations) and global level. Abayas, throughout the UAE are not only signifiers of Emirati tradition, but are exclusively branded as expensive, luxurious, and high quality products. In Trainer’s case study, she recounts that, “some participants told me that they had their abayas made by personal tailors, but stores exclusively selling abayas and shaylas were also located in most of the shopping malls found throughout the Emirates. Additionally, online ‘Islamic boutiques’ have proliferated in recent years” (Trainer 8). This implies that the abaya is being marketed as fashion, due to both supply and demand, as well as variation in styles and designs being sold. In Trainer’s descriptions of female students at University of Dubai, we are introduced to the real preferences of Emirati women through their fashion choices and selections. Below are a few descriptions of the dress worn by students, Lara and Salma.
“When Lara showed up for her first interview with me, she wore her hair loose down to the middle of her back and uncovered by a shayla, her silk abaya was open in the front to show designer jeans, and she wore hot pink stiletto heels” (Trainer 11).
“Salma was another participant with whom I interacted routinely during my fieldwork. Salma always wore both abaya and shayla, well wrapped but draped well. In other words her abayas and shaylas were flattering, often quite tight, and decorated with embroidered designs and crystals. I never saw Salma without makeup, jewelry, and high heels accessorizing her outfits” (Trainer 12).
“Most students dressed similar to Salma, for “this suite of style cues could be crafted to be very flattering but also appeared to attract the least negative attentions from peers, older Emiratis, and foreigners alike” (Trainer 7).
These accounts of college students, which are not wholly representative of Emirati women, are reflective of the changing attitudes and evolution of Islamic dress, especially among younger generations. The portrayal of Lara above, suggests a mix and match of Islamic tradition with western style. The selection of an open abaya paired with designer jeans, demonstrates a blended or in-between state of identity. Lara, through wearing designer jeans reveals the influence of western fashion, while the open abaya as an overcoat indicates the Emirati identity is still intact or preserved. This accommodation of western style and preservation of tradition and culture suggests that Emirati women are carefully testing the gray line of modernity and modesty.
Salma, like Lara, parted from the traditional, loose-fitted abaya. The tight-fitted abaya, which exposes the contours of the body, along with the use of accessories, such as jewelry, makeup, and heels is another example of abaya- as-fashion. Further, the use of accessories can be interpreted as zeenat or adornment, and exposing zeenat to all is frowned on by scholars of Islam. This departure from the traditional abaya is once again illustrative of a twenty-first century Islam, one where women mix and match, and blend different traditions and styles. In the accounts of both Lara, and Salma, the powerful influence of the west in the fashion choices and selections by women of the UAE is quite evident.
Abayas in the Gulf nations are visibly branded as high fashion, and the influence of western styles and designs in these ‘high fashion abayas’ is indisputable. A popular abaya store in the UAE is DAS Collection, started by designers Reem and Hind Beljafla. Their online website states, “Our vision was defined early on: to create a ‘must-have’ black dress combining the most up-to-date fashions with the historical aspects and respectful nature of an abaya” (DAS Collection). Although their online store features traditional black abayas with Arab influences such as Arabic names to the dresses, and cords seamed into the dress, the latest collections illustrate a strong western influence. The DAS collection, which is in Dubai Mall, can also be found in Harrods in the United Kingdom, demonstrating the abaya breaking national boundaries. DAS collection abayas, which market their abayas to be paired with western designer handbags, watches, and shoes, reveal a high level of western influence on the abaya-as- fashion. For example, the DAS collections’ online website features abayas with floral accents that are matched and paired to compliment the Swiss watch company Patek Philippe. The abaya-as-fashion blends with items from the West, such as the Swiss watch company, demonstrating a new globalized abaya in the marketplace. Another successful abaya brand is Sweety Abayas; on its website, it states that it creates designer abayas and shaylas. The western influence is very evident: abayas are named, California, Vienna, Monaco, and Montreal. Prices of Sweety abayas range from $150 to $600 dollars, due to Swarovski crystals being embedded into the garments. Sweety Abayas, which are headquartered in Dubai, ship internationally, demonstrating the global appeal to luxurious and high fashion abayas. Sweety Abayas further state on their website: “by fusing traditional elements with modern embellishments and chic styling, Sweety has fast garnered a fan following that includes celebrities, dignitaries and members of the Royal families” (Sweety Abaya). This suggests the evolution of the abaya from a traditional black overcoat to intricate and expensive high fashion overcoats.
Another example of branding of the Abaya locally is the classic Barbie doll donning the black abaya, which can be found on the shelves of toy stores across malls in the UAE. The Barbie doll, which is a product of the west, created a Barbie doll to meets the needs and demands of consumers of the Middle East. Not only does the Barbie donning the abaya portray the normalization of abayas by the west, but it shifts the west to cater its production to meet the consumer demands and markets in the Middle Eastern region. These are all examples of a new emerging global abaya, one that is not defined by national boundaries.
The findings above suggest that abayas found in the Gulf states are used as a vehicle to express and juxtapose the influence of western culture and style within the confines of national boundaries. In the case study conducted by Trainer, she suggests college students are performing their identity through their abayas. Their dress of fashionable abayas, paired with western designer accessories and clothes underneath, highlight the emergence of a new westernized abaya, one that flourishes in the backdrop of globalization. This reveals a significant western influence on the fashion incorporated into the design of abayas found in the Gulf region. These fashion abayas express not only a growing business, but rather a new cosmopolitan identity of Muslims in the Gulf states. This cosmopolitan Islamic identity, further seems to reflect the national visions of the Gulf states, like UAE and Qatar, who are preserving the essential elements of Islamic tradition while incorporating western models of architecture, restaurants, designer stores, cars, and businesses. The fashion abaya “worn by young Gulf women today still accommodates, despite changes in presentation and style, both “the hegemonic order of Islamic patriarchy” and national ideologies because its “essential qualities” have not been altered” (Trainer 7). Further, the cosmopolitan fashion abaya demonstrates the influence of globalization on the blending of different identities.
Figure 1 highlights the emergence of high fashion abayas, which is heavily influenced by western high fashion designers. Pairing abayas with western designer bags, shoes, and watches indicates not only significant western influence, but also a growing cosmopolitan identity of Gulf women. This emerging identity can be explained by scholar Krystyna Golkowska, who states, “the abaya and hijab are still religious and ethnic signifiers, but as such they have been losing some of their rigidity. The so-called new abaya is no longer the shapeless garb it used to be; allowing for experimentation, it can be a fashion statement. Similarly, the burquini (modest swimming attire) or sportswear following Islamic rules have recently enabled women to exercise and participate in some sports” (Golkowska 16). Further, Figure 2, a Barbie doll dressed in an abaya, suggests a reversal in influence. The global demand of the abaya is growing, and is even worn as high fashion by non-Muslims. For example, high fashion western brands such as Dolce & Gabbana have created a line of hijabs and abayas, as part of their Ramadan collection (Limited Harrods). The Italian company’s expansion of its collection to include abayas demonstrates a significant influence of the Middle East on the West. Examples like the Barbie doll wearing an abaya, and Dolce & Gabbana’s Ramadan collection indicate the new emerging globalized abaya, and a cosmopolitan Islamic identity.
The fashion abaya reveals the appeal and allure of luxury, high quality, and extravagance. The fashion abayas which are quite costly, would seem to stress class distinctions and wealth among Gulf citizens. This is a clear departure from traditional abayas, which were uniformly plain black, and were regarded as equalizers for women. For some, particularly religious scholars, who view the equation between the tradition and the western influence as a zero-sum relationship, the fashion abayas are a negative development. However, the proponents of the fashion abaya may argue that they are pursuing a global and modern abaya, and not a western one.
The evolution of the abaya in the Persian Gulf states reflects a change in the mode in which women participate in a society that is trying to balance a desire to achieve modernity and globalization within the confines of Islamic tradition. At this early stage of the process, the over-reliance on western fashion and style as a proxy for modernity and globalization creates an impression that the quest for modernity is a quest for westernization. This potential conflict may overtime be resolved as the reliance on western norms is gradually replaced with creative native fashion that is more harmonious with the traditions of that region. Choices between the demands of a competitive global landscape and the traditional roles of women in the society will continue to pose challenges.
Ahmed, Leila. “Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate.” New Haven: Yale, UP, 1992, 220. Print.
Al-Khouli, Ramadan. “Women and Education in the Gulf: Between the Modern and the Traditional.” Gulf Women. Ed. Amira El-Azhary Sonbol. Doha, Qatar: Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, 2012.
Al-Malki, Amal, David Kaufer, Suguru Ishizaki and Kira Dreher. “Arab Women in Arab News. Old Stereotypes and New Media.” Doha, Qatar: Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, 2012.
DAS collection. Dubai-UAE. Abaya Kaftan, Designer Abayas. Web. 03. 2017. http://www.dascollection.com/profile.php
Golkowska, Krystyna Urbisz. “Arab Women in the Gulf and the Narrative of Changes: The Case of Qatar.” International Studies. Interdisciplinary Political and Cultural Journal, 2014.
Limited, Harrods. Dolce & Gabbana Abaya Collection. Web. 05. 2017. http://www.harrods.com/brand/dolce-and-gabbana/women/abaya-collection?viewall=yes
Almazroiu, Ayesha. “The Case for a Modest Abaya Has Grey Area.” The National 23 June 2015. Web. 01 Jane. 2017. http://www.thenational.ae/opinion/comment/the-case-for-a-modest-abaya-has-grey-areas
Trainer, S. “Piety, Glamour, and Protest: Performing Social Status and Affiliation in the United Arab Emirates. “Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 2015.
Sweety Abaya, Designer Abayas & Sheilas. Web. 03. 2017. http://sweetyabaya.com/index.php?route=information/information&information_id=4