The Abaya, or, The Ladies’ Invisibility Cloak

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In most parts of Saudi Arabia, all women—even non-Muslim women—must wear an abaya when they are out in public. An abaya is a long garment made of thin black material that looks a lot like a choir robe or a graduation gown. Some abayas are made so that they also cover the head, but it is more common to see abayas without the head covering. Generally, women cover their heads using separate head scarves. That said, in the two Eastern Province cities where I have been so far, women who are clearly westerners do not cover their heads, and as far as I know there would never be a situation where a non-Muslim woman would be compelled to cover her face.

Once your eyes adjust to the dark (abayas are always black), you can start to notice that these ubiquitous robes are not all the same. Many have some sort of decorative trim on the sleeve, around the neckline, and/or along the line of the robe’s front opening. Sometimes the trim is done in embroidery or beadwork; sometimes it is made of a contrasting fabric. I saw one woman wearing an abaya that had what looked like Adidas stripes running down the sleeve, like some kind of farcical ladies’ warm-up suit. (Were they riffing on Run D.M.C. when they came up with this design? “My-A-Baya!”) At the other end of the spectrum, there is a shop that specializes in abayas trimmed with Swarovski crystals.

As someone who has been in the country for all of two weeks, I am not really qualified to talk much about the regional differences between fashions in the large city of Dhahran, versus the more conservative Hofuf, which is the nearest town to the compound where I live, deep in the Arabian desert. But I won’t let that stop me…. What I have noticed is that in Dhahran, some women wear more fitted abayas. They’re not tight, by any stretch of the imagination, but they are cut so that the waist is slightly fitted, giving some hint that there is, in fact, a woman under there. In Hofuf, though, I have only seen what can best be described as the Hefty Bag fit.

The day after we arrived at our new home, in a compound out in the desert in the eastern province, our neighbor, Holly, borrowed an abaya for me to wear, and she and her husband Jonathan took Michael and I to the mall in Hofuf. Like the ones in Dhahran, the mall in Hofuf is brand new, huge, and upscale. The top floor of this four-story marble and chrome palace is given over to an amusement park with carnival rides and a small roller coaster. In the United States, I’m not much for shopping malls, but I am beginning to see that in the K.S.A., going to the mall is the major social activity outside the home. (It should be noted, though, that in this country, all of the really important social activities happen in the home. Entertaining at home here is much more formal, sophisticated, and elaborate than it is in the U.S.)

The mall was noisy and full of families out for the evening. Michael and Jon stood out in the hall, leaning on the shiny chrome and glass railings, while Holly and I shopped for my abaya. The small store was staffed, as all the stores are, by men. When it was time to make the purchase, our husbands came into the shop, haggled a little over the price, and then Michael made the purchase.

Properly worn, an abaya is floor length—an unfortunate fact, since the bottom of a woman’s abaya can get pretty dusty and dirty by the end of any outing. However, I am 5’11”, and there was no floor-length abaya to be found for me. And, in looking around, I could see that some women were wearing abayas that came only to their ankles. So, that would have to do.

Holly found the abaya that I ended up purchasing. It is made of a very lightweight, semi-translucent black silk on the outside, but lined in cool silk-satin with a beautiful, Asian-inspired floral pattern. In bright light, the robin’s egg blue and vivid pinks and roses of the lining fabric shine through the outer black layer, and a glimpse of the lining can also be seen on the inside of the wide sleeve openings. This abaya cost considerably more than the more basic model I had initially chosen. However, the satin lining makes this one much cooler than any other abaya I have seen (most are some sort of lightweight wool or polyester blend). Plus, I think it is really beautiful, which is important. It’s a big culture shock to be compelled to wear an abaya whenever I leave my sheltered little community, so I ought to at least enjoy something about its aesthetics.

Navigating in my new abaya has been somewhat of a challenge. I have stepped on the bottom of it. I have dragged the sleeve through my plate of food. I have come very close to having it sucked into the top step of an escalator. I have looked down and noticed, as I was sitting on a bench, that a gap had opened between two of the snaps and exposed—gasp!—a bare knee. I feel like a tomboy wearing a party dress. I have only had to wear it a few times, though, and like most things, I’m sure it will get easier with practice.

What might not get easier as time goes on is the fact that, out in public, women wearing abayas are practically invisible. It is considered impolite for a man to make eye contact with a woman, and yet only men work in the shops and restaurants. A woman not wearing an abaya is subject to leering stares and wolf whistles; a woman properly covered is ignored.

To be honest, this is an oversimplification of things: I have been treated fairly in quite a few establishments. It seems that the more international or cosmopolitan a place is trying to be, the more acknowledgement they give to women. I could be wrong about this, though; I have already seen exceptions even to this seemingly common-sense theory. I’m sure I will develop a more nuanced understanding of how to conduct myself in public as time goes on, and will begin to pick up on social cues that are now going right over my head.

Because I am wearing my Invisibility Cloak when my husband and I are out together, it is easy just to let him do the food ordering, let him do the price negotiations, let him handle payment for everything, let him figure out the bus schedule, let him carry all the packages. It’s a hassle for him, of course, and I can see that it will keep me from learning how to navigate in this country on my own. Maybe that’s okay, because there won’t be many occasions when I am out in public in Saudi Arabia by muself. However, I have to make sure that I don’t allow this passive way of being to seep into my behavior patterns when we are back home in the States, or in other, more western countries. Also, since I plan to do a lot of solo travelling outside of Saudi Arabia, I must not allow myself to become too comfortable in this sheltered role.

In short, I must learn how to behave correctly when I am wearing my Invisibility Cloak. And I must be diligent about shedding those behaviors instantly when the abaya comes off, stuffing them like a scarf into the beautiful silken sleeve until the next time I venture outside the compound’s walls.

Next: the beautiful beaches of Saudi Arabia!