Origin and historical background

The term Shaylah is relatively new, it’s origins doubtful and exclusively applied to the headscarf in the UAE region. It was originally used as an overall body cover that also covered the head, but within a relatively short time, it became only a headcover.

Some items of clothing from Islamic and Arab backgrounds resemble the shaylah and can be divided into two categories: head covers, and overall body covers:

  • Al-buqhnuq, al-bushiyah, al-khimar, and al-hijab are all headcovers that closely resemble the shaylah. Al-buqhnuq is made of black lightweight fabric decorated with embroidery work, similar to the shaylah, but it is tailored at one end to allow just the face to show.
  • Al-izar is the oldest form of mantel used by both genders. It existed prior to the Islamic era and had been worn by Jews, Christians and Muslims. It was described both as a piece of non-stitched cloth used to cover the body and worn on top of clothing and as a stitched item of clothing. It was made of a heavier fabric than the shaylah, such as velvet and wool.
Shaylah worn with the burghu

Shape and design

The basic form of the shaylah was and still is a black Indian cotton cloth in the form of a scarf intended to cover the head and the upper part of the body. This fabric was originally imported in pre-cut pieces of 2 x 2.5 war (about 1.8 x 2.3 meters). Before the abaya became popular and in common use during the late 1960s, two such pieces were commonly stitched together at the long edge to create a large square cloth that was used as an outer cloak that covered the entire body.

Sometimes other textiles were used to make the shaylah:

  • Shaylah nil, also known as nidwah, made of loosely woven gauze cotton called sash. Though mainly black, it had a reddish lustre due to the nil or indigo stain, which coloured the skin when worn.
  • Shaylah tur, made of black Indian lace resembling tulle, with diverse openly woven patterns.
  • Shaylah bu-nfah, made of either simple black malmal cotton or tur, both fabrics having a distinctly speckled texture created during the weaving process.
  • Shaylah minaghidah or minaqidah, also known as minaqat, meaning spotted. The name is derived from naqid or nuqud meaning coins, either in reference to the shape of the fabric’s coin-shaped design or to the value of the silver threadwork. It is made of a delicate black chiffon lace or tulle and is decorated with patterns made of silver thread known as khus. This refined form of al shaylah was reserved for special occasions such as weddings. If a real silver thread were used, the value was determined by the weight of the silver. This was an excellent saving method, as in times of need the shaylah would be burned and the silver collected and sold.
UAE, facemask,veil,
Photograph by Eve Arnold/Magnum. Behind the veil, 2009. Taken while documenting the Maktoum family wedding in 1971. A fine example of a sheer shaylah embellished with khus


Khus was originally imported from India in a bundle known as kuwar or kiran, although it was later brought from Japan. It consists of silver drawn through a series of dies until a very fine thread is obtained. This is then hammered flat and either used to embroider in this ribbon form or wound around a silken core to make thread. These days thin ribbons of shiny base metal or copper wire, silver gilded by electrolysis, are wrapped around cotton threads, and at times plastic may even be substituted for cotton.

These narrow, 2.5mm wide, flat strips, or ‘straws’, are inserted through the net fabric and folded to create a star or speckled effect. The speckle is then repeated to create more intricate patterns of lozenges, triangles, and other angular geometrical shapes and rigid plant-inspired motifs. Curved patterns are not possible because of the limitations of the flat strips.

Excerpt from Sultani Book by Dr Reem El Mutwalli. Volume II, page 323

The social practice of wearing the shaylah

The shaylah was worn in conjunction with the burghu both at home and in public as soon as a young woman began to show signs of womanhood. Traditionally, both were kept on even in all-female company. Normally the almost square-shaped cloth was placed on the head covering the forehead with the sides falling on the back of the shoulders and extending down to the knees. It could also be draped across the face with one end tucked to the side above the ear and the opposite end falling on the chest or to the back, with the burghu fastened on top. This was the case when the shaylah was worn at home or when performing household duties. It was secured in various folds onto the back of the shoulders to allow the arms freedom of movement while working.

When in public the shaylah acted as an outer cloak and was then usually either gathered at the chin or at the chest and held in place with one hand, or it was held tight to the face by holding one side with the teeth, covering part of the face and mouth, while the other side was left spread out at the back behind the opposite shoulder.

Today many women still hold one end of the shaylah bunched in one hand to cover their mouth while speaking, with or without a burghu. While some spend much of their time re-arranging their headscarf, others feel more secure with the added protection of the burghu.

UAE traditional dress Sultani Collection
In a contemporary Abaya and Shaylah on the cover of the @villa88magazine Summer 2019 issue, featuring Sarah Al Jarman @sarahaljarman, who is reshaping the course for Emirati women in the media industry as the first network manager in Dubai TV.

Functions of al shaylah

Originally, the function of the shaylah was exclusive as an Islamic Khimar, concealing the head, hair, and upper body of a woman. At times it also served as an overall body cover hijab, shielding the entire body from view. However, recently the use of the shaylah has become more practical – the shaylah floats with the wearer’s movements and can be drawn shyly over the mouth when speaking, signalling modesty and good breeding. The subtle differences in length, width, and fabric thickness can indicate to the trained eye whether the wearer is from Saudi, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman or the UAE. The quality of fabric and type of embellishment can also clearly indicate the wearer’s status and wealth.

Contemporary interpretation of traditional dress – abaya and shaylah in white. Dubai 2019

Modifications and alterations

Four main factors influenced the shaylah design during the last few decades, all directly related to the sudden surge of wealth and exposure to the outside world.

  • The introduction of new types of textiles such as chiffon, silk, French and Italian lace, as well as synthetic fibres from both the East and the West. Though the basic colour remained black, the new fabrics allowed experimentation with different textures and densities.
  • The introduction of the shoulder abaya which lead to a change in the shaylah’s length and width as its function was now limited to covering the head and not the whole body.
  • An abundance of decorative ornaments such as beads, crystals, ribbons and lace trimmings became readily available in local markets.
  • A rush of inexpensive skilled labour.

All of these factors allowed for more extensive designs, decorative motifs and finishing ornaments on the shaylah.

During the 1960s five types of shaylahs were used:

  • Shaylah niduwah, also known as mirah – a simple sash cotton style for everyday use both indoors and out. A new shaylah was first worn outside and in public and once it became worn it was used indoors while doing housework and a new one of the same kind was then bought for outside wear.
  • Shaylah wasmah, made of heavier cotton and about two by three adhru (a forearm’s length – approximately 45cm) in size. It served as a shaylah, abaya, and gishwah all in one. It was wrapped around the entire body to conceal it in public.
  • Shaylah nil, a type of sheer indigo-stained cotton gauze. It was laid on a flat surface and beaten repeatedly on each side in a special way known as yisighlunha to introduce a lustrous shine. This polished shaylah was reserved for special occasions such as Eid celebrations and weddings.
  • Shaylah bu-nafah, more formal and used for social gatherings and outings. Older women chose cotton as a sign of maturity, but younger, newly married women chose tulle to accentuate their beauty.
  • Shaylah minaghidah, the dressiest type of shaylah made of Indian tulle or imitations silk (nylon) and decorated in elaborate patterns using khus. Most of the ornamentation was concentrated on the two outer edges of the shaylah as that was the most visible part of the garment. For very special occasions the whole shaylah was decorated with a grid of intersecting silver lines and small motifs. This created a heavier, more impressive and definitely more expensive shaylah.
Example of a shaylah decorated with crystals and rhinestones. From the Sultani Collection

With the introduction of European textiles in the 1970s came the shaylah sari, replacing the cotton of the shaylah niduwah with chiffon, making it easier to wear as it was less wrinkly and didn’t slip off the head as easily.

These shaylah saris came in three different densities for different occasions.

  • The lightest, most transparent form was used on outings and social gatherings to enhance the display of new hairstyles and jewellery and to blend with the newly acquired European fashions.
  • The second type was less translucent, and a somewhat thicker fabric worn at social gatherings of a more public nature. It enhanced the wearer’s display while simultaneously being more concealing. It was also used by women working in semi-public spaces.
  • The last type was much denser and opaquer to be worn in very open public areas to ensure complete concealment. All three were made of synthetic materials and bought is sets of six pieces in a box.

In the late 1970s, machine embroidery became popular allowing lightweight, repetitive designs to be used over the full surface of the shaylah. Although embellishments were still mainly black or silver, coloured threads started to appear. As most of the tailors and embroiderers were of Indian origin, many of the designs and motifs were inspired by their background.

Model wearing traditional silver studded dress ensemble thawb wa kandurah & shalyah imnaqad, UAE Al Ain 1986. From the Zay Collection

The 1980s were marked by a fascination with heavy embroidery and intense glitter on all garments, both traditional and Western-influenced. A novel decorative technique using iron-on studs and crystals became popular. It could be added in strips or in delicate patterns, used on its own or combined with embroidery and was available in a multitude of colours.

This period also saw the launch of the shaylah and abaya ensembles – coordinated sets of clothing imported from Saudi Arabia. The abaya worn on the top of the head made way for the shoulder abaya which in turn required a narrower shaylah that only covered the neck and face.

The 1990s saw a saturation of all things shiny. Tastes were becoming more mature as a result of constant exposure to the rest of the world. The overwhelming brilliant decorative elements were given up in favour of simple, subtle, monochromatic and more subdued hues. Embroidery, if used, was only applied in narrow bands and black-on-black became popular. Crystals were used very sparingly and only in clear, un-coloured highlights that sparkled as they caught the light.

During the mid-1990s European lace borders were added to the shaylah to compliment the newly acquired European evening dresses which became popular during this time. Lace borders were added along one long edge of a shaylah to frame the face. It was worn on the head with the two ends hanging gracefully down the sides to accentuate the dress, jewellery and hairstyle of the wearer. These garments very delicate and not wrapped or used for concealment but rather as a modest enhancement.

The Future: From Dolce & Gabbana’s latest modest fashion collection

Towards the end of the previous century, rectangular scarves produced by famous European design houses such as Gucci, Versace, Dior, and YSL became popular and was used to match designer outfits of long skirts or pantsuits.

In the early 2000s a new look known as shaylah bu kafkhan, meaning balloon, became popular. Women tied their hair in a bun on top of their head to give the shaylah a more pleasing and softer drape around the head and face. In some cases, women added headbands or hair sponges to give an exaggerated lift to the hair at the back of the head resulting in a softer drape and a distinctly Renaissance look.

The future: Modest fashion at IFDC’s fashion show in Moscow. From the IFDC Instagram account

Today the role, shape, style and fabric of the shaylah keeps on changing and adapting to customs and fashion. What started out as a practical garment has become more of a fashion statement, yet, religious, traditional and social values still hold its place in the lives and of UAE women and will continue to play a role in how, where and when a shaylah is worn.