I don’t have to wear an Abaya, but I do, at least at school. Why?? My Emirate colleagues and students ask me why, and my friends and family back home ask me why.
5 Reasons why I wear Abaya
First, a bit of background:
Islam requires its followers to be “modest”. Men and women alike.
“…and not display their beauty except what is apparent, and they should place their khumur over their bosoms…”
(Khumur means a loose outer garment.)
“O Prophet! Say to your wives, your daughters, and the women of the believers that: they should let down upon themselves their jalabib.”
(Jalabib means a loose outer garment.)
(reference from Al-Islam.org)
Although the UAE is predominately a Muslim country, there is a lot of diversity amongst its citizenry and therefore, different beliefs and lifestyles are fairly well tolerated. Nonetheless, Islam is the dominant belief system and it is expected that all people living in the UAE will adhere to its guidelines at least “moderately”. It’s complicated.
The national dress code (yes, there is a national dress code) is vague: sometimes it is written “dress moderately”; other times you see it posted, “dress respectfully”. For me, wearing anything at all in this desert heat is “respectful”, so I quickly concluded that I really don’t know what could be considered “respectful” and what might be insulting or inappropriate.
Generally speaking, “moderate” and “respectful” means loose-fitting so that no feminine body shape is detectable. It means long sleeves, long skirts, dresses, or baggy pants. All Muslim wear hijab (head covering); Emirate women wear Abaya; some women wear big baggy dresses; Western women struggle with big pants, big jackets, shawls, long cardigans, and the like. A few non-Muslim women wear stretch pants and long shirts.
Personally, I feel sloppy and unprofessional in my “normal” clothes. And this affects my overall self-esteem, confidence, professionalism, and even my mental attitude. So I decided to wear an Abaya when I’m out in the public (unless I’m going out with a group of my expat compatriots).
So here are my five reasons for wearing the Abaya:
I stand out enough as it is; my mannerisms, my behaviorisms, my eyes, everything about me says “stranger! Infidel! Awkward foreigner!” When I wear the Abaya, at least I give the message that I want to fit in and that I’m trying.
Without judgment and commentary on my physical appearance, I am most free to be my authentic self when I wear the Abaya. Even though it is big and it highlights my natural clumsiness, I can move more naturally in an Abaya than I can in a suit jacket, for example.
Put on comfortable clothes without worrying at all about the reactions of others and then throw on the Abaya and go out. Its really simple.
Yes, it’s hot. Yes, its awkward. But so are all the other clothes that are acceptable. Honestly, a skirt, long sleeved shirt option is much more hot because it clings to the skin. Surprisingly, the Abaya is not nearly as hot as you might think because the hot air swirls around and keeps my skin free and dry. So really, given the heat and the requirement to be “moderate” and “respectful”, the Abaya is the most comfortable option available.
It is my deepest desire to learn about this culture and to get to know Emirate people. Indeed, to do that requires respect. I respect my hosts. Wearing the Abaya demonstrates this respect up front and immediately. After that, they can get to know me and I can get to know them.