By Salamah Ghudayer - SMCCU
It can be both, so the answer is about intention. Firstly, lets define what you are seeing. The Abaya is the long cloak for ladies, commonly black and seen nationwide. It is worn when outside of our home to comfortably adhere to religious guidelines about covering the woman’s curves. Made from a thin and flowing fabric under the heat of our environment it became iconic to this regions culture. Though it can be of any color, black is the most popular. Underneath western clothes are worn or a colorful kandoora, so the abaya is our outer garment. On our head, is a sheila. This is a long rectangular scarf wrapped once or twice around the head and neck, as per each woman’s habit or preferred style. Some ladies add a full-face veil by adding an extra square of fabric, or by using the end of her sheila – this face covering is called gushwa and is the traditional full-face veil for UAE. The niqab, is an import – the veil which is tied around the head and part lifts up to an open eye area. Ladies who wish to cover their face, but drive or have a clearer view will sometimes prefer this piece of clothing. The mask made from gold colored fabric is purely cultural and is called a Burqa.
Hijab is the covering of the hair and curves of the body down to the wrists and feet of a Muslim lady, as well as maintaining a mannerism of dignity and decorum. Some believe the face is included and others do not. The black colored abaya and sheila is the local method of hijab, differing from Muslim women of Morocco, Indonesia, Ethiopia; etc. Muslim women wear traditional styles based on climate, availability of cloth or clothes, and to be logical as they have things to get done within their environment, while maintaining Hijab. If in a very mountainous region, she would be wasting one hand to hold her abaya up to not trip as she maneuvers through her day, so her dress would be different than an abaya. Temperature, weather, activities; all play a major role in a cultures clothing. The thin, black fabric works perfectly in the Emirates. It is loose and flows for the heat and humidity. The black ensures no transparency; which is one clear request of our clothing in the Quran – our holy book. If a lady wore white or light pink in the bright sun of UAE, it would need to be very thick or of warmer unnatural fabric; making it quite hot in the heat here. So, the thin, non-transparent black actually makes life cooler for this environment. It has become synonymous with the Emirates and other communities that are near the gulf water; while inland especially towards our west was more colorful.
The abaya is a cultural article of clothing which makes the wearing of Islamic hijab comfortable in the Emirates. For some ladies, they use the black abaya as a statement on national identity only and is why they wear it. For many women it holds both; religious and national recognition. Various shops have different cuts, styles, decorations and even colors catering to her individual needs and tastes. In society its fashion has changed and will continue to change, but it’s utility and meaning will remain as a mark of identity for the Muslim Emirati women.