Why the black abaya?

February 13, 2011

Have you ever wondered why women in Oman and other GCC countries wear the black abaya? I certainly have.

 We started off pretty well. Take a look at photos from Oman in the 1960s and 70s. Women wore modest, traditional and colourful clothing. I’m not quite sure when the black abaya found its way into Oman, but many people blame Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Today, the concept of the black abaya has become so engrained in our society that we can’t imagine our lives without it. Most girls are told by their families to start wearing it when they turn 13 or 14, and are stuck with it for life. Once you start, there’s no going back.

I started wearing an abaya in grade eight because all the girls in my class wore it, and I didn’t want to stand out. Now, ten years later, I can’t even drive to my sister’s house down the street without putting it on. Why? Because I’m afraid of what will happen if I don’t wear it. I feel as if I’d be committing a crime against society by not wearing it.

 In fact, I’m pretty sure society here in Salalah would also feel I’m doing something wrong, and someone would surely feel the need to report my scandalous behaviour to someone from my tribe.

I asked my male colleagues (regular victims of my random feminist outbursts) why they think women should wear a black abaya. Most said girls must start wearing the abaya when they reach puberty to protect their 'reputation.' I asked them to explain what they meant by that, but they just went around in circles repeating the argument about reputation.

 A couple of others believed that society looks down upon girls who don’t wear it. My favourite answer was from a guy who said men wouldn't be able to concentrate at work if their female colleagues wore colourful clothes. Really?

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not against the abaya at all. In fact, I love wearing it. It’s practical and comfortable, and I can wear whatever I want underneath. Furthermore, it’s extremely fashionable. Black happens to be very elegant, especially when studded with jewellery or adorned with silver or gold linings and other designs.

The cost of abayas can range from RO20 to RO200 or RO300 depending on the detailed hand embroidery, designer brand and crystals. Wearing an abaya is also an easier way to cover up without having to worry about co-ordinating an entire outfit.

On the other hand, it gets dirty easily, gets stuck in the wheels of my office chair at least twice a day, and is a constant tripping hazard. Furthermore, during the summer, the abaya becomes your own personal heating pad. Black absorbs heat like a sponge absorbs liquid.

So why do we wear it? Because we’ve got used to it and are afraid of what people will say if we don’t wear it? Why the obsession with conformity? Society in Oman has always had a problem with anyone different, more so here in Dhofar where it’s almost taboo to stand out of the crowd, especially for women. As a young woman who practically worships individuality, I find this very hard at times. I'm sure many young women out there share my sentiments.

From a religious point of view, wearing black isn’t strictly required by Islam. Muslim women should wear loose fitting and modest clothing that covers the body. Can that not be achieved with green or purple? I knew a woman here in Salalah who made beautiful coloured abayas and tried to market them to the local women a few years ago, but most claimed their husbands would never let them.

The word ‘let’ is what gets on my nerves. Abayas are beautiful, but every woman should have the right to choose whether she wants to wear one or not. What concerns me is that girls all over Oman are being forced to wear black by their families from a young age. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a little colour.

In Muscat, things have changed and it’s not uncommon to see women in colour, but for the rest of us, black rules. I don’t predict any changes in the near future in Dhofar, because we haven’t even started tackling the issue of the black face veil, let alone the abaya! Goodness knows how long it’ll be before women here can start choosing what they want to wear. Food for thought....