Conceal to Reveal – how the Abaya became part of the UAE identity Cultural Dress

The abaya, similar to a cloak worn over the head and on top of the headscarf, conceals the shape of the body from head to toe, revealing just the face. It has an interesting but short history in the UAE – six or seven decades ago, this long, flowing black garment was relatively unknown, however, once the trend to wear it began, this simple garment quickly changed local fashion.

Terminology

This type of full-body cloak is known in Egypt as milayah, in Morocco as jilabah, and in the Arabian Peninsula, the Levantine Arab States and Iraq as al-abaah or al-aba, sometimes as dafah. The shorter terms abah or aba (plural ibi) is only used in the UAE. The modern version we know today is known as an abaya

Origin and background

According to the older generation UAE women, they did not grow up with the aba. “This practice is only recent. It came with the oil.

The abaya was an expensive and very rare form of cover and was reserved for use by the elite and borrowed from them by the rest of the community for special occasions such as covering a bride on her wedding day as she was walked from her father’s home to her newlyweds family home. This was a great example of social collaboration and unity among the tribespeople.

Most women wore the shaylah that engulfed the full upper portion of their bodies together with a baggy thawb to ensure full coverage. Societies were composed of small tribal units living in clusters and everyone knew each other through marital and kinship ties.

With the oil-boom came wealth, urbanisation and exposure to the rest of the world. These three elements were instrumental in the introduction of Abayat Ras, the black silk version of the abaya worn draped off the head to ensure more concealment when in public. By the 1980s, with girls entering higher education and the workforce, functionality dictated the evolution of the abaya into the robe-like garment we see today coupled with a narrower form of shaylah.

The Zay Initiative blog. Abaya
UAE women at a wedding wearing traditional dress. Credit: Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. Note the woman on the left is wearing the Abayat Ras draped of the head and the one on the right is wearing the same but draped off the shoulders. Both are acceptable practices of the time.

Shape and openings

Although identical in concept and cut to the garment worn by men, the aba differs in fabric, colour and embellishments used, and of course, in the way it is worn. It is roughly a double square, 1.5 m in length and width with a front opening and two side slits barely large enough to allow the hands to poke through.

Piping, known as ghitan, made from black silk thread usually runs down the front edges and around the seam of the sleeves and in a wider band around the cuff. Sometimes golden metal braids (qasab) or embroidery decorates the sides of the central opening. It might include tassels made from the same thread.

The Zay Initiative. Abaya
Photo taken outside the post office in Bur Dubai, 1962. Photographer unknown.

Components

  • Al-ras, meaning head opening, although it actually refers to the neckline
  • Al-iyad, meaning hand, referring to the opening through which the hand protrude
  • Al-khusur, meaning waistline, referring to the tuck inserted across the width of the garment to shorten it for ease of wear
  • Al-khudud, meaning cheeks, referring to the two sleeve panels, similar to the jinan on the thawb
  • Al-thayil, meaning tail, referring to the train of the garment
  • Al-khalifiyah, meaning the back of the garment
  • Al-ghitan, meaning laces, referring to the piping used at the edges of the garment
  • Al-imayl, a simple three-stranded tassel ending with golden thread balls. It is usually placed at mid-length around the chest line at both sides of the centre front opening.
The Zay Initiative blog. Abaya
The typical way of wearing the abaya in the UAE during the 1980s. Two prominent UAE artists, Dr Najat Makki and Khulud Al Jabir at a Cultural Foundation exhibition opening, Abu Dhabi, 1989. Photographer unknown.

Social practice

When UAE women first started wearing the aba, they draped it from the centre of the crown. It extended loosely behind their backs as they walked, or they tucked the lower ends under one of their sides. In both cases the hands hardly ever extended through the openings, leaving the sides resembling wings flapping as they walked. At times, especially at the marketplace or when reaching to greet someone, the right side of the garment was pulled across the front using the left hand to cover part of the face. This ensured a modest cover and gave the right arm freedom to move through its opening to shake hands or touch items.

During the 1970s the lighter, sheer, silk aba became popular among UAE and Qatari women. In the UAE it was worn draped from the crown and then gathered up at the waist by holding it in both arms, revealing the lower portion of the dress beneath. This created a distinct UAE style.

Most women were still illiterate regarding detailed religious practices.  The aba was relatively new to them and they treated it as they would a shaylah. UAE nationals were easily identified by the way they gathered their aba in their arms, lifting it as high as the waist from the front and up to the knees at the back, showing the full bottom part of the skirt underneath.

An aba was usually accompanied by a shaylah and a ghishwah underneath. Though mainly worn outdoors, it was custom to not take it off outside of one’s own home, even in strictly female company. However, when the aba was removed in private it was always folded in a special way (tarbia) to palm size and placed to the right of the wearer.

The Zay Initiative. Abaya
Photo for NatGeoAbuDhabi. Garments from the Sultani Collection.

During the 1980s the aba directly influenced dress ornamentation as all special design features and heavy embroidery were concentrated at the centre bodice and yoke and the front part of the skirt for it to be visible through the front opening of the aba. In the early 1990s women began to spend large amounts of money on fashionable dresses by well known international couturiers, most of which did not concentrate their embellishments along the front and a different approach was needed to display their features. Designers and tailors began experimenting with lighter, more perforated types of materials such as lace to complement the dresses and reveal more of what lay beneath.

In the latter half of the 1990s women began to remove their abas and shaylahs when in private gatherings. The garments were either placed on a hanger by the entrance or it was folded to form a single length of cloth one shibir (25 cm) wide, then folded into a square and rolled. This ensured that the garment did not crease. It was then placed on the back of the woman’s seat, readily at hand if needed. This practice started with Iranian, Bahraini and Nadji women before being adopted by UAE women.

The Zay Initiative blog. Abaya
Women buying dates. Kuwait 1939. Photographer: Alan Villiers

Modifications and alterations

During the 1980s the shoulder abaya became popular in both the UAE and other Gulf states. This was mostly for practical reasons as it had fitted sleeves, creating a more manageable garment suited to modern life. Women started experimenting with modern fabrics and more elaborate embellishments and embroidery. It was accompanied by a narrower shaylah to cover the head.

In the 1990s more ostentatious fabrics, embroidery, rhinestones and crystals became fashionable, mostly in black-on-black embellishments, and shaylahs were designed to match the abayas. The Umaniyah style (named after Oman, as it resembles the tunics worn by Omani men) became popular. These garments differed from the normal shoulder abayas by having a cross-over front fastening. The left front fastened onto the right shoulder and the right front folded over the left fastening on the left shoulder completely covering the front view of the dress underneath. It is believed that this style came to the UAE via Saudi and was ‘imported’ by people attending the Hajj.

The Zay Initiative Blog. Abaya
Afghani-Dutch fashion blogger Ruba Zai stars in a Dolce & Gabbana social media campaign. Credit: The National newspaper

The early 2000s was a time of experimentation. New cuts and styles, sometimes resulting in bizarre and flamboyant designs, became fashionable. Some styles had narrow waists and wide belts to emphasise body shape, and hooded headcovers in an attempt to adopt western styles.

In the last few years women started moving away from all black abayas, experimenting with coloured shaylahs and embellishments. Designs are more individual and in tune with international trends. Today the abaya is a modern, fashion-forward garment, and rather than being used to hide an outfit, it has become an outfit in its own right. The growing popularity of the modest fashion movement contributed to this.

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