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The traditional abaya is a plain black robe worn by Muslim women to cover their regular clothing, It could be described as a long-sleeve robe-like dress and it is the traditional form of dress for many countries of the Arabian peninsula including Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. In Iran the abaya is referred to as a chador and in South Asia a burqa.
The abaya covers the whole body except the face, feet, and hands. It can be worn with the niqab, a face veil covering all but the eyes.
The origins of the abaya are vague. Some think that it existed as long as 4 000 years ago in the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and when Islam arose in the seventh century C.E., the religion absorbed local veiling practices into its culture, probably due to the dressing traditions of the women of Arab Jahiliya.
In those days women wore dresses that revealed their necks, chests, even breasts as well as other parts of their bodies. They also drew their veils backwards while leaving the front parts wide open (understandable in the crushing desert heat). Consequently, when Islam arrived, they were ordered to draw their veils forward to cover their chest and to protect women from acts of disrespect.
Some think that the idea of ‘the covering’ was more about class than it was about religion. In pre-Islam urban centers of the Arabian Peninsula veiling was seen as a sign of privilege and a luxury afforded to women who didn’t have to work. They were distinguished from slave girls and prostitutes, who were not allowed to veil or cover, and nomadic and rural women too busy working to be bothered with something so impractical as a face veil and extra layer of clothing.
Source: Laura of Arabia, women24.com
Today, the strictest interpretations of Islamic Shari’a law dictate that Muslim women should wear full body coverings in front of any man they could theoretically marry. This means that it is not obligatory in the company of father, brothers, grandfathers, uncles or young children and does not need to be worn in front of other Muslim women.
Abayas come in a multiplicity of types and design, and different styles and colours are favoured by women from particular regions according to specific religious and cultural interpretations.
- A Head abaya rests on top of the head and extends below the ankles, ensuring that a women’s body stays completely hidden.
- Black abayas are more commonly worn in Middle Eastern countries, especially Saudi-Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar.
- White abayas are populary worn in Far Eastern Muslim countries.
- Coloured and embroidered abayas are becoming increasingly popular in Jordan, western countries and now also in Middle Eastern countries too.
Although black is the preferred colour in some countries Muslim women can generally wear whatever color they like as long as it does not generate unnecessary attention. For this reason earth-tones are popular choices.
Muslim women often wear designer labels underneath their outer garments and increasingly they want to wear fashionable outerwear too. Devout need not mean drab. Fashion designers are waking up to this and specialised stores, websites and fashion shows are springing up, top European fashion labels including John Galliano and Blumarine have recently showcased models wearing couture abayas.
The abaya has come a long way in 4,000 years!