In any culture of the world, clothing and attire is attributed with essential meaning unique for each individual culture. One of the most essential attributes of clothing is that it determines a person’s identity. Indeed, the way a person dresses might say a lot about their geographic and historical background, as well as social and religious stance. In cultures that value tradition, bonds between clothing and culture are the strongest. In Islamic culture, for one, it is possible to estimate a person’s origins and values by the way they are dressed.
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Location and climate as well as tradition and culture, determined largely by Prophet Mohammad’s teachings, have laid their imprint on the clothes, both men’s and women’s. Climatically, a flowing garment is the mist optimal solution; culturally, non-compromisingly long attire is the most suitable for both sexes as a tribute to the Holy Book. Also, long and loose clothes are convenient for everyday use: one can walk, sit, and work moving the limbs without constraint that some Western clothes bring. In addition, such clothing can be easily transformed and used for a wide array of purposes.
The piece of clothing that appears to satisfy all those cultural and practical needs is the aba or abaya. It is the most basic piece of garment that harkens back to Arab nomads. Highly traditional and convenient, it is still in use to-date, as well as other sorts of attire with which it is usually worn together. It signifies a person originating from Islamic culture both within Saudi Arabia and outside it, although it cannot be worn by everyone. In Iran, wearing the aba has become strictly the prerogative of the clergy (Algar par. 1).
In Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, it is mostly worn by women – especially by Qatari women who tend to regard the aba as an accessory of identity. The reasons they wear the aba might be, for example, to demonstrate their devotion to traditional values of womanhood, femininity, and beauty as described in the Holy Book. Also, the aba is worn as a tribute to tradition of the nation that Qatari descend from (Roche, Roche, and Saidi 134). However, national identity notwithstanding, the attitudes towards wearing traditional clothing in Islamic culture are undergoing significant changes, today. Thus, the following paper is aimed at exploration and interpretation of the perception of traditional clothing historically and in contemporary Islamic culture, particularly the history and perception of the abaya today, as Qatari women exemplify.
The aba or abaya is a piece of outer clothing that has gained the most of its popularity among the Bedouin tribes. The Bedouin have been romanticized in literature that represents them as an essence of nomadic ways and customs, an entirely unexplored group of strange people. However, with the course of time, instead of the definition of a lifestyle, the term “Bedouin” became the determinant of an identity (Cole 237). Today, a Bedouin is the living epitome of tradition. Despite the fact that the Bedouin villages in the 21st century scarcely remain as a tourist attraction, there are many Bedouin descendants. Qatar, for one, is populated with some of the descendants of the most widely-known Bedouin tribe (244). Consequently, the Bedouin customs in housing, trading, eating, and clothing still linger.
As to the clothing, it is stated that, in Saudi Bedouin culture, the aba was worn mostly by men. However, women could be seen wearing the garment as well. Most commonly, the Bedouin aba looked like a gown without sleeves, buttons, or belts. Not designed to be buttoned or belted, it used to be worn on top of all other clothes. The form and shape of the aba was common for a wide part of Middle East; with Bedouins, it was indeed very popular. Bedouin tribes dwelling in different areas of Saudi Arabia had diverse traditions concerning this piece of garment. In the Eastern regions, the aba was produced out of wool, and the material had a striped pattern in black or brown and white.
The colors were plain since wearing bright colors was the prerogative of the notable and rich. These usually had their abas in red or green, richly embroidered with precious golden or silver thread in the upper half of the garment. Nomad tribes in the North wore their abas black, which was a rare color among other tribes (Algar par. 1-4). The aba had many uses among the Bedouin. It is a loose garment, which means that it could be deployed to a variety of functions in everyday nomadic life. For instance, for an average Bedouin, the aba could serve as a blanket or sheet and as a pillow, when folded. Considering that the Bedouin made their living by trade, one can easily see a Bedouin wrapping their goods in the aba and carrying it as a bag or turning it into some kind of a sunshade. The Bedouin abas were suitable for wearing all year round. The abas woven of camel wool were very warm and could serve as a winter overcoat. Those made of a finer material were used in warm seasons (Algar par. 5).
As said, the Bedouin tradition is slowly fading away these days. Nevertheless, the clothing tradition is preserved, although the attitudes toward it is changing, especially in women. People of Qatar, for instance, are the descendants of Bedouin tribes dwelling the central and eastern regions of Saudi Arabia. Also, being a small country, Qatar is very protective of its traditions in art, religion, and clothing. It is stated that older Qatari women still wear their traditional garments; the younger also have them in their wardrobes, if only more colorful than they used to be. Wahabi Islam is a common practice among Qatari people. The meaning of it is that they are mainly devoted to the earliest interpretations of the Prophet’s teachings – including Surah 23:31.
In this part of the Qur’an, women are expected to wear modest clothing so that their chastity is preserved (Lindholm, “Invisible No More” 1). Some women, indeed, regard the aba as a cover only. Before the oil boom, they wore their abas black, consisting of two square pieces of cloth wrapped over the body and covering the head. The decorations were also black, with gold embroidery signifying only the upper class (2). This tradition was used throughout the 20th century for political purposes. Both men and women – but especially women – switched their everyday clothing for more traditional ones to reflect their political stance.
In the 1970s, for instance, female population of Iran wore their hijabs to protest against the shah’s ruling; Palestinian male population wears kufiyahs and flag colors to show their devotion for their nation (Roche, Roche, and Saidi 136). But, political concerns aside, black color of the aba is, just as any artifact in Islamic culture, surrounded by legends; particularly, a black aba has been poeticized as a symbol of a woman’s purity. Indeed, such inconspicuousness was sufficient for displaying the regional identity as well as practicing religion that Qatari women value.
However, the situation has changed in several aspects. Since 1980s, Qatari women were seen wearing the abas over modern clothes, i.e., loose gowns. In 1997, Qatar has opened its first shopping mall, with Western advertising displaying the fashions and images of “other” women. Globalization facilitated the leakage of fashion trends into the Arabic culture, which is one of the reasons Western clothing has become popular with the Qatari female population. Another significant change in the Qatari society was that women started working while at the same time seeking to keep their customs and avoid harassment from the conservative male population. More emancipate women openly fight for their rights to choose the way they dress and look. As a result, the contemporary Qatari aba comes in various and more convenient shapes than it used to (Goto 22-24).
The variety of forms and designs that the contemporary aba has today reflects its value for Qatari women as a symbol of change in their roles and ways (Lindholm, “A material culture assessment” n. pag.). The materials, for ones, have changed from thick cotton to silk or fine polyester. The shape goes further than the basic square: most commonly, it is tailored in T-shape or A-shape with wide sleeves and oval neck. Currently, the designs allow buttons, loops, and brooches to close the slits that the traditional aba did not have in the first place.
Considering that the aba is worn over other clothes, the slits can partially disclose the owner’s dress when she walks. Another version of the aba consists of a single piece of cloth largely overlapping on the rims. Basically, the cloth cannot be closed but nothing is visible from down under due to these overlapping rims. Also, to compliment the tradition, the aba can have the form closest to the Al-Wahabi direction, consisting of two square pieces of cloth. Finally, there is a version that can be regarded as the most courageous one, with seams that fit the cloth to the figure, thus outlining the body (Lindholm, “A material culture assessment” n. pag.).
The change of attitudes towards traditional garments is very useful for clearer understanding of the processes that take place in the Saudi Bedouin society. As it was said, a Bedouin, especially a Bedouin woman, nowadays is a representation of tradition, and it is true. The volition to preserve the traditions of womanhood, femininity, and beauty triggers the perseverance of abas among Qatari women. Of course, there is quite a controversy regarding the usage of Western style by Saudi women. Sleeveless tops and slim-fit jackets as well as skinny jeans and short skirts are believed to be not quite suitable for a virtuous woman. At the same time, the Western styles and ways are gradually and persistently penetrating the lifestyle of Qatari women.
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Women become more independent and individualistic, they acknowledge that men dictating women how to dress and look is a violation of women’s rights (Fields 58). Thus, it seems that the women in Qatar are put to face the controversy not only when interacting with the opposite sex but also within themselves. While the Western culture symbolizes newness, freedom of choice and emancipation, the aba and other traditional clothes refer to traditional values of integrity, righteousness, and discipline. The solution that the Qatari women have been offered seems the most optimal one. With the centuries-old clothing tradition reframed, the abas, as well as other traditional clothing items, e.g., hijab or niqab, experience significant changes in design and come in looser and more convenient forms. With all the new models that were mentioned above, women can cherish their values and express their individuality.
To sum it up, the aba used to be a very important garment for the Saudi Arabian peoples as well as it is now. For the Bedouin, it was a cover and a handy tool that could be transformed to serve a multitude of purposes. Currently, it is a crucial piece of garment that means very much for Qatari women: it is an artifact of culture shaped by the Prophet’s teachings and practical usage, and the importance of it is hard to overestimate. On the one hand, the aba worn with other traditional clothes is a symbol of national identity and belonging to renowned Bedouin culture, both within their homeland and abroad. On the other hand, Qatari women are making use of the traditional aba, changing its design to their liking and convenience to demonstrate their individualism, embrace the everlasting struggle for female rights, and distinguish themselves in the society they belong to.
Algar, Hamid. “ABĀ.” Encyclopaedia Iranica. Encyclopaedia Iranica.
Cole, Donald Powell. “Where Have the Bedouin Gone?” Anthropological Quarterly 76.2 (2003): 235-267. Print.
Fields, Rona. Against Violence Against Women: The Case for Gender as a Protected Class, Basingstoke, United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Print.
Goto, Manami. “Attitudinal change towards traditional attire among Qatari women over one generation.” Qatar University QSpace. Qspace Institutional Repository, 2015.
Lindholm, Christina. “A material culture assessment of the changing abayas of Qatar 1908 to 2008.” Diss. University of Brighton, 2012. Print.
Lindholm, Christina. “Invisible No More: The Embellished Abaya in Qatar.” Textile Society of America 12th Biennial Symposium Proceedings, University of Nebraska, 6-9 October 2010. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2010. Print.
Roche, Thomas, Erin Roche, and Ahmed Al Saidi. “Interwoven: Women’s Dress Practices and Identity on the Arabian Peninsula.” International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences 6.10 (2012): 133-143.