Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Abaya Post

I had been planning for some time to write a post about abayas. I got blog-envy when, at about the same time as I first wanted to write this post, Expat And The City wrote about it on her blog.   Now is yet another opportune time to finally sit down and write,  because I have been encouraged to write after reading some comments about abayas on Facebook. *Photos will come later, promise.

And it went a little like this; as commented by another blonde foreign woman in Kuwait stating, "It's so hot outside that I feel like just going out wearing an abaya and my bra and panties."

So like, yo - what is wrong with that?  An abaya is just a house dress or a covering.  If you are a woman (or hey - a man - I'm not judging) and you are, at this very moment, wearing a dress and a bra and panties,  you are doing the same thing. What is the big deal?  The abaya would (under normal circumstances, but not always) be a little less form-fitting, however.

The mystery and fear of the abaya

I don't understand the fear of the abaya.  It really isn't that mysterious and scary.  Its a garment;  a piece of clothing.  It isn't going to bite you if you touch it on display in a shop.  You can ask questions about it and get to know it.  Go on - Tooooouch it.  Woman up!

Sidebar:  I get asked this question every now and then by people considering a move to Kuwait, "Do I need to wear the burka (or chador) in Kuwait?"  We don't call it those things here.  The term in Kuwait is "abaya", and no - you don't HAVE to wear anything (clothing keeps you out of jail, however).  And read on, most abaya styles are not full-body and they don't have those burka-grid looking things (if Kuwaiti abayas had the burqa face holes, these girls here would be blingin their grills for sure... just sayin.).  
Question:  Is it oppression if a woman chooses to wear an abaya?

Is it that women think that they are being made invisible or subservient by wearing abaya?  Ok, I can see if  you are forced to wear one by some religiously-inaccurate circumstance, but if you have the choice, why the F not?  Do youse fear being judged?  Perhapsee that you've  (dun dun dun duuuuun....) gone native?

Yes yes, God forbid we should live in a foreign country and actually integrate into our host society.  Shudder the thought...  (sigh....)  Where did you say I could find a McDonald's?

Times when becoming invisible in an abaya is a good thing

Several years ago, a Kuwaiti girlfriend of mine was left at the alter (not really because they don't have alters here, but that's what happened, Kuwaiti-style).   Ok what happened was, dude got cold feet and told her family that he had some stuff to work out first before marrying her.  She went a little nutsy.  She said she just knew he was using their honeymoon tickets to take another woman.  "We ARE going to the airport when he comes back to check on him!"  I'm like, 'Damn girl!  LOOK at me, do you think he's not going to recognize me?!'  Then I got that all-too-familiar mischievous look.  Oh snap - not the abaya disguise again.....

We wore abayas and niqab (the face veil) and he literally walked right by us.... alone... with a sad look on his face.  They later got married and had 3 kids.  

Abayas are not a bad, scary thing.  Sometimes my girlfriends and I wear them, niqab, and tons of flashy make up, shoes, and nail polish, and throw on some fake eyelashes and go to the mall for recreational purposes.  (See "Ho-baya" reference to follow.)

          (Addendum:  War Abaya or "War-baya")

I didn't even recall this story until Gail left a comment (after the initial post)  and jarred my memory.

I had a Kuwaiti female friend who was in the resistance during the occupation in 90-91.  In case people don't know it, Kuwaitis fought back - including many women because the Iraqi soldiers often would not physically check them.  My friend (and many women like her) wore an abaya and ran guns for the underground fighters (often with her small children with her so the soldiers wouldn't suspect her crossing checkpoints).  She was eventually caught and tortured by Iraqi soldiers (and still has burn scars all over her chest to prove it).  I completely forgot about this part of Kuwaiti abaya history. (Talk about up-armoring your attire.  Nothing like an AK or two as an accessory.)

I also forgot that I have spoken to female US soldiers over the years who are not allowed off-base in their uniforms, so they wore an abaya to cover it up when they had to leave post for errands.  (Thanks for that jump start to a particular synapse,  AG!)

Props to my Sisters

Hey, and due-respect shout-out to all my sistahs who wear abaya/niqab religiously.  I admire you ladies because -especially when you add the niqab - those things are HOT and it takes enormous dedication to wear it properly all the time.  Abayas also have a way of getting stuck in escalator skids.  Not fun.

Abaya Fashion

An abaya has traditionally been to hide a woman's figure (making her appear more modest), but like everything else, has been altered (if you'll excuse the pun) over time.

Abaya fashion (like every other kind of fashion) is often unique to the country where  you live.  I'm talking about Kuwait's in this post.  And - the way that women wear hijab or the shayla is totally different country-to country (but I'm just commenting here on the abaya itself.  The head gear is a totally different story.)

20 years ago, you would only find black abayas in Kuwait that were like long drapes from head-to-foot. They didn't even fully cover your hair (front part of the head was usually out).  Women would wear them so that some hair was showing.   After the Gulf War, in 1991, many women who had moved to Saudi Arabia during the occupation by Iraq came back adopting more conservative gear.  Further, Kuwait's society in general was depressed for several years following the war by the atrocities they had witnessed and loved ones they had lost.  Kuwait was not a happy country at that time and many more people were turning to conservative religion (and attire).

So these days, abayas have become fashion.   Saudi Arabia has banned the embellishment (bedazzling?) of abayas, but just about everywhere else, you can find ornate ones.  Swarovski crystal has made a huge revenues in the GCC in the past few years as women have wanted to (not only stick them on wedding attire) but to up-bling their outer-armor.    The over-the-head style abaya has been replaced by a house-coat type and matching shayla (hijab).  It is fashion and different colors and styles have hit the market in recent years, so black is no longer the only option. (And by-the-by, previously in recent history, only a "bad woman" would wear a red hijab but that thinking changed too.)

I have seen abayas with lace, tassels, crystals, designer logos (BIG ones - across the back of abayas and covering the hijabs), and even feathers.  Some are pleated, rouched, with empire waists, with rosettes, in various sleeve styles, and some even have long trains.  Recent fashions include calf-length non-transparent with see-through fabric from the calf down (peek-a-boo?).  You rarely find transparent abayas unless they are wedding fashion and not real traditional.

There is one other form;  the customized (what some refer to as) "ho-baya"; tailored tight across the butt and chest areas; teetering on the side of modesty, but with the intention of male attention.  There is usually a specific walk that goes along with the ho-baya (but I won't get into that.  See puppy reference below).

On my last trip to Dubai, I brought back three different styles of abayas (for myself) and several for gifts for friends.  One was black semi-transparent black chiffon over a purple color with cut-outs and embroidery; one was a taupe and black combination with lace; and one was a basic black "Islami" style (like a house coat) with colorful flower embroidery along the full sleeves.  I brought a beautiful blue velvet belted abaya with cut-outs in flower designs for my friend; similar abayas for other friends.

Where do you wear it?

Ok so you are wondering if I've "gone native" right?  Why the judgement?  Hmmm?  I love abayas.  I don't care what anyone says.  If I want to wear a tiara and a pink tutu, I'm going to do it because I'm secure in myself.  But in this case, I live in a Middle Eastern country where it isn't about (me) wearing a garment for religious purposes, but for fashion; or as a sign of respect.  I do not wear an abaya for religious beliefs (but again, I admire and respect my sisters out there who do).

You may ask, "Yo, tell us, Desert Girl - where do you wear an abaya?"  and then more likely, "What's under it?"    Here goes (where I wear it:  what's under it):
  • To a party/party:  Mini-skirt!!  I'm not going to wear party gear in my conservative neighborhood without getting stares.  I cover that stuff up (and so do my girlfriends).  
  • To a funeral: Jeans and a T-shirt. In Kuwait (or to any Islamic funeral), it is etiquette to wear an abaya and a sign of respect to the family.  If you showed up without wearing one, you would be ostracized. This is where I would wear a conservative abaya.  
  • To a ministry (to conduct any type of official work): Jeans and a T-shirt or a work outfit if I'm going to work after.  Abayas will only get your stuff done faster.  Seriously.  It's like wearing a black suit to court.
  • To a wedding: A soiree gown/party dress. 
There is a whole lot of Kuwaiti wedding etiquette surrounding an abaya and head covering. (I wasn't going to get into details, but I think I will.)  If  you are invited to a Kuwaiti wedding, it is etiquette to wear an abaya and bring a shayla (loose head covering) with you. Everyone there will and if you are the only foreigner there, it will be respectful to your hosts.  Wear the abaya into the wedding hall; take it off as you walk in (there is usually a little room or alcove provided with a mirror).  Keep the abaya and shayla with you.  Party like it's your birthday.  When they announce that the groom's party is entering the hall, everyone will rush to put on their abayas and cover their hair.  You can just throw the shayla over your head if you want to.  Everybody does the same thing.  When the men go out, you take it off again.  That simple.
  • To lunch at the Kuwaiti family's on Friday (because they live in a conservative Bedouin neighborhood and I respect them) a long skirt and a t-shirt or (depending who is there and I'm trying to impress) a nice dress/elaborate outfit.
  • Ramadan:  fer sure a duraa (long traditional dress meant to impress and be comfortable at the same time - like stretchy pants on Thanksgiving.  Nice duraa's sell like hotcakes right before Ramadan and a lot of young Kuwaiti designers have started making them).
  • Old souqs.  I sometimes wear an abaya to old/traditional areas in Kuwait where I feel that my butt might be stared at.  (It's my "butt-shield," ok?  As Eddie Murphy said, you can tell when your butt is being started at because it gets all hot from the eyes.  Abaya butt-shields eliminate the dangerous rays.)
  • Romantic date night:  (Not say'in.  Leave it alone.)
  • And then, there is the ever present:  I wear my abaya over my pajamas to take the trash out, if workers come to my house, or if I want to go to the store and am too f-ing lazy to put anything on.  BAM.  What's the big deal?  

Sidenote:  Slaperella wore her abaya to the store once with PJs below (she loves her abaya and has several as she's required to travel to Saudi Arabia for her job).  A dude standing outside the shop asked her where she was from. She answered (UK) and he said, "If you are Western, why are you wearing Arab clothes?"  She looked at his T-shirt, asked him where he was from (Egypt) and she said, "If you are Egyptian, why are you wearing Western clothes?"  Got some giggles from passers-by.  WTF.  Noneyour.

Depending on the occasion, I have a LOT of different abayas ranging in price from cheap (5 KD polyester from Souq Salmiya) to expensive (150 KD silk chiffon with crystals from Abu Heil Mall, off Al Quds Metro station in Dubai).  

What do other women wear under their abayas?

I used to work with a woman who wore her pajamas to work every day and never did her hair.  Covered it up nicely with an abaya and a hijab.  In answer to this question, you wear whatever you want to wear under an abaya.  It depends on how you usually dress, where you're going, and what the occasion is - just like anything else.

I've seen some FREAKY stuff come out from under abayas at party/parties (that I wouldn't dare in the boudoir...) and I have seen some OTT elegant stuff come out of others.  It all depends.  An American friend of mine (female) was on an elevator with a (what we foreigners call) a "covered woman" once and they struck up a friendly conversation.  Out of curiosity, American gal asked abaya gal what she normally wore under it.  She said, "edible underwear and heels."  Ok, so she might have been saying it for shock value.  Or it could have been a timing/location thing (around 10 pm on a weekend night going up on an elevator).  Or it could have been a flat-out lie so that she would pass this urban legend on to her (American gal's) equally-naive friends.  One never knows.  Alls I'm saying is that ANYTHING could be under an abaya (and if you are a man under one and the police catch you, it equals jail time, so not funny).

Again, you never know what is under an abaya....(although many times, its nothing more than what appears to be 2 puppies playing under a blanket, if you know what I mean....)

Where do I buy one?
  • Almost all of the old traditional souqs (Mubarakiya, Salmiya, Fahaheel) sell abayas for cheap (5 dinars and up).  They are mostly heavier polyester types, but sometimes you can find something fashionable.
  • Laila Gallerie (cha CHING).  This is where you are going to find the silk type that are going to be more expensive with matching head coverings.  They probably have ornate embroidery and crystals.
  • Sayfi Mall in Farwaniya.  Ok, I have yet to venture there, but everyone I have spoken to (even several Emirati ladies in Dubai) says it is a great place to get nicely designed abayas for a moderate price.
  • Have it made.  Purchase fabric at the commercial blocks downtown and there is everything you'll need to have it embellished or bedazzled (including a Swarovski crystal shop that sells every imaginable size, color and shape of crystal).  In the Jabriya Commercial Center (behind Mubarak Hospital, behind the school) there are rows of Pakistani tailors who do amazing embroidery! (There is also an awesome bakery there.)  They can make you an abaya as can any of the tailors above the fabric shops in the commercial complex downtown.  

If you have more abaya thoughts, bring it on in the comments (or send me a photo).  Please be nice, however.  These are my personal perspectives and do necessarily reflect the opinion of the network.


Anonymous said...

Wow you covered the 411 on abayas. You give more info than i would really ever want to know. I have 2 things to say. I wear an abaya when I go out and one of the main reasons is because I had it made and I have deep deep pockets on each side that holds everything. i sneek popcorn into the theatre. At least I act Like I do I really dont think any of the workers would stop me. Sometimes I just have a T shirt and shorts on under mine. And 2 the best abaya I ever saw was one that had a peacock design on the back that went all the way up with feathers coming off the shoulder. No camera and no other witness to this glorious event. How does she wash it?

Anonymous said...


AG said...

So nice to see a post about abayas from the American perspective! I also preferred to cover when going to certain areas or businesses (ministries) in Kuwait. Or, when I wanted to check on my American employees on their day off in Mahboula/Fahaheel/Fintas. I would completely cover (niqab included), sit in the Starbucks Al-Kout or shop at TSC and watch them act like fools. It was entertaining.

If you make it down to ABu Dhabi check out Al Nawaem in Al Raha mall. I bought a number of abayas there -- off the rack! And felt they were just as luxurious as those I had custom made.

P.S. The first question T is asked when people find out he's Arab: "Do you wear the white dress? What do you wear under it?" Why do people think that's an appropriate question?! Perhaps you should do a dishdasha post next? :)

Unknown said...

so nice ,,,,,,,,,,

Desert Girl said...

Gail - would that be the mom-baya? :) LOL I am SO going to use that system at the cinema. I think she'd have to take the abaya to the cleaners. I had a thobe neshla like that once that was black with a giant gold peacock. I still have it somewhere (I love garment art!)

Anonymous 7:56 - I don't know who you are but I'm guessing you're my Irish cousin...(?) Thank you for the compliment. I appreciate that. :)

AG - Thanks again! Cool that you would check out employees that way and that is an aspect I never thought about. I usually use the disguise on boyfriends and such, but you just brought a new twist to light. Hmmm. I will check out the Abu Dhabi mall. I love a good adventure.

And.... What do you wear under your clothing? Totally inappropriate question but people feel that they can get away with it out of curiosity. They might actually try to make close friends and then try to ask.

Naw, I have no experience in the dishtasha area. You should have T write about it and post it on your blog and then I'll link it everywhere. :)

Crazy in Kuwait said...

My mom wears her Eeyore pajamas under them with her 'Kiss my grits' T-shirt. I usually wear them when I don't feel like being stared at or as you've said...to do anything Ministry. I wear a tank top and leggings especially when it's so hot.

I've been at parties when a whole herd of niqabi chicks bust in the door, head straight to the straight to the bedroom and voila! insta-ho.

My mom, sis and I along with a friend wore niqab one time...headed out to the desert to ride buggies..didn't find buggies so my sis and friend rode horses out there by the camel farms. I could not breathe with that on! I do however keep a niqab in case I need to go undercover.

So many fun things to do in Kuwait lol

Anonymous said...

For me...summer+ abayya = thigh-highs ( in case the wind blows) and a cotton sports bra. Who's gonna know?

Expat and the City said...

DG you are crazy! Lol! I love this post. You give me way too much credit. My abaya post was just on my experience of going to one abaya store in Kuwait. I felt clueless without his family! Thanks to your post I can now print it off (like I did with your fabric post) and feel more confident the next time I go. xoxo

Anonymous said...

Great Post DG! I have been in Kuwait over 6 years, and the Abaya does come in handy for all the reasons you listed, especially to show respect to host country. A friend of mine turned me onto a great trick, lol, of wearing the Abaya and niqab when out shopping and bargaining at the Souks! If the shopkeepers spot an expat coming, the prices rise accordingly! The Abaya/niqab covering comes in handy.

Beach-Girl a kuwaiti expat in europe said...

Hands down my favorite post of yours ever!! Loved it so much it brought me out of my usual lurk-mode.

Anonymous said...

Why do you wear abaya to the ministries?

Can you please explain?

Do most Kuwaiti women at the Ministry wear the abaya?

I'm curious, I'm Kuwaiti and I've never visited any ministries

Desert Girl said...

Anonymous Aug 14 -

Hi. I (and friends I know) wear an abaya at ministries because it helps get things done faster. For example, in the the US, if you wear a dark suit (if you are male or female) to court, it shows respect and that you are professional/serious (whereas if you wore a t-shirt and shorts, it would be considered disrespectful to the court/judge). Same theory applies here.

Kuwait law is based on Islamic law. The top officials have been taught at Islamic law schools. Many of the women at ministries wear abaya. "When in Rome..."

Of course, this is not to say that you can't wear whatever you want to where ever you go, but I've found (in my personal experience) that it is useful to wear an abaya at ministries.

Reason #2: No one stares at your ass.

Anonymous said...

I find it strange that Western expat women wear abaya to ministries because Kuwaiti female ministers don't wear the abaya

Probably 50% of Kuwaiti women don't wear the abaya

The current female minister, Hind al-Subaih doesn't wear abaya.
The former minister Rola Dashti also doesn't wear abaya. None of Kuwait's former female ministers wore abaya

Desert Girl said...

Anonymous 8:07 Aug 14 -

Yes you're right. Probably half of the Kuwaiti female population does not wear abaya. Most of the female Kuwaiti politicians don't wear abaya. I don't wear abaya daily (hardly ever, in fact).

I am not advocating that anyone wear abaya if they don't want to. Wear whatever you want to wear.

However, I am stating from PERSONAL EXPERIENCE (i.e. my own experience and that of close friends), that I have found that things get done quicker for me when I'm wearing an abaya at a ministry in Kuwait than when I'm not.

While in the States, I get better service at official government offices if I'm dressed in a dark suit instead of booty shorts and a tank top (because a lot of women choose to wear those articles of clothing also, but I don't).

But hey - again I'm not advocating you do as I do. Do whatever the hey you want to do.