Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Dish-Dasha-ing Around Abu Dhabi, Abayas in My View

Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque in Abu Dhabi:
6th largest in the world
image credit

We made it! We're here! Or in the words of a hilariously self-important friend overcome by the glory of Union Square shopping in NYC, arms outstretched: We have arrived!

London is but a distant memory and now our world consists of 100-degree days, air conditioning and lots of (shockingly cheap) cab rides. It's hard to encapsulate the changes and surprises that moving to the UAE has brought to our lives without sounding cliched, materialistic or even downright presumptuous. It is a unique place full of money, and oil, and definitely lots of bling bling - but that's not all there is to it.

Abu Dhabi is a place of contrast and extremity and even, to a certain degree, of ordered confusion. To the Western eye, largely untrained in the ways of the Middle East, there are many things that seem vastly different but actually aren't, and many things that seem exactly the same but actually aren't either.

While I don't think it would be prudent to go into every single one of those impressions today, I would like to share information on one of the biggest sources of surprise and shock to me: the Emirati National Dress. It is exemplary of so much about Emirati culture in that what we see is not always what it seems.

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Dishdashas and Abayas: A Black and White Way of Life
But not so much.

Dish-dashas and Abayas: Real Culture Shock.

Proud of their dishdashas.
image credit

It is a hot topic everywhere - extremist Islam and women's rights therein. I wasn't sure how I, a generally pretty sassy Western woman, would take to being in a "male dominated" society where women are "required to cover everything but their eyes."

Luckily for me, most of the caveats and "facts" I was given regarding Islamic practices and requirements in clothing a) don't apply to me in the UAE and b) are not anywhere near as extreme as people would have you think, in Abu Dhabi and Dubai at least. I was shocked to see people walking around in what I had always assumed was "extremist Islamic" dress at the mall, supermarket and even in luxury hotels; happily, I soon realized that their clothes were as commonplace and un-extremist as jeans and a t-shirt are to you and me.

National dress or National Threat?

Male dishdashas (or thawbs) and female Abayas are the National Dress in the UAE, loosely comparable to wearing a Kimono in Japan, but far more common. Contrary to paranoid Western opinion, both men and women wear them everywhere. They are both long-sleeved, neck-high, floor-length robes. The male version is white and the female version is black. They are both accompanied by traditional, long headscarfs: a white ghutra and black igal for men, and a black niqāb for women. None of these things cover the face, hands or eyes and any further covering is simply dictated by the degree to which that family considers itself "conservative."

Men wearing Traditional Thawbs or Dishdashas
image credit

While I have seen women with fully covered faces (even their eyes!), on the whole, most Emirati women I see do not have their faces covered at all and it is generally Muslims from different countries who require this (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc.). Most Emirati women sport immaculate mani-pedis, designer handbags, and are incredibly friendly toward non-Abaya'd Westerners.

A fashionable Abaya.

The biggest culture shock to me was my revelation that Abayas are beautiful. I was shocked to find myself aesthetically thrilled by them, to the degree that I began window-shopping at Abaya stores, curiously, wishing it wouldn't be culturally inappropriate for me to go in and try them on.

They have beautiful, colorful embellishments (despite the fact that Abayas only come in black) and are not cut like the dreaded and taboo burqas, straight down and matronly. Many of them are made of satin, chiffon or other beautiful materials and are cut with curves, flounces and even ruffle-y edges. The way women drape them over their hair (for the most part) is feminine, flattering, and even reminiscent of haute-couture. And most amazingly, underneath the black Abaya they are wearing the latest fashions, sometimes giving away their predilection for one brand or another through their exposed designer heels and sandals.

The male headdress can either be white or red/white checkered and can be worn hanging straight down or with the sides folded over the head in the "cobra fashion." If they are not wearing their headscarf they will often wear a small cap called a kufi or even just a baseball cap (generally designer too).

Another fashionable Abaya.
Image credit

While I do not mean to underplay or deny the existence of oppression, lack of rights or forced traditions anywhere in the world, I do wish to state that for my part and in my limited experience in the UAE, I think thawbs and abayas are a colorful cultural tradition that enriches a place that has tried so hard to make itself Western. They are, it seems, a source of national pride and identity, more than a political statement, and defining them as such (in this case anyway) would make me ethnocentric and, frankly, a little too black and white in my view of the world.

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Informative & Interesting Links

Abayas as Haute Couture: An article that came out today!

Abaya-Jubah Blog: Pictures of Haute Couture Abayas & Modern Abayas for Sale!

Arabmania Blog: More Pictures of Haute Couture Abayas

Clothing in Arabia: A brief overview of male national dress

List of types of Sartorial hijab (Islamic dress)

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  1. Congratulations Brenda, Matt and Roman, on arriving in your new home! I hope that you are settling in nicely and are enjoying getting to know your way around.

    Thank you for sharing this insight - Islamic women's dress (burqas and to smaller extent, abayas) have become almost synonymous with 'oppression' to some Westerners, but as you noted, we must take care not to paint it so broadly. The clothing, like the cuisine or any other aspect of a culture, developed from a combination of factors such as suitability for the environment, belief systems, etc. To ascribe just one meaning is to miss 99.9% of what it is all about. The abayas shown here are really stunning!

    I look forward to reading more about your new stomping grounds! 8-)

  2. Congrats on having "made it" Cannot wait to learn more of life for you in your new home. Must feel pretty darn good to be settled in. I look forward to learning of the culinary exploration which I assume is already underway.

  3. Glad to see you are enjoying Abu Dhabi.
    Just a few pointers.....
    the Niqab is what a woman uses to cover her face so what you describe above is the Shaila or Hijab.
    Another thing is it really isn't unappropriate for a westerner to wear an abaya and we do not take offense to it.