It comes as no news that there are various forms of dress in different communities the world over, and you could accuse people (including myself) of constantly going on about Western fashion history while kind of unwillingly ignoring our own region’s heritage. That’s why I thought it would be interesting to take a look into the history of some traditional Middle Eastern garb.
In this time of sacrifice and celebration – Ramadan Kareem to those of you celebrating – I thought it would be enlightening to examine how Muslim women in different regions of the Arab interpret and comply with Islamic rules of dress.
So let’s go back to the source. In the Qur’an, both men and women are told to dress modestly. Modesty is a key word for us studying the evolution of the Abaya. "O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters, and the believing women, to cover themselves with a loose garment. They will thus be recognized and no harm will come to them," the Qur’an says.
But modesty can mean different things to different people, and there is an enormous geographical and cultural disparity between the far-flung corners of the Islamic world.
Keeping that in mind, we will be focusing mainly on the Levant, which traditionally covers Iraq, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, where the clothes were less “colorful” than, say, the Berbers of Marocco or the Bedouins from north Sinai. Not surprisingly, throughout the centuries, there are many forms of such traditional dress for women, which reflect social and cultural differences, as well as economic and religious considerations. And let’s not forget that many different groups have settled in this region through time.
And as always and with all cultures, the revival of a traditional garment is to be expected. A good example is the revival of the keffieh a few years back in the Arab world, but also and even more so, in Europe (worn by many who know little to nothing about the rich history behind the garment). Funny anecdote, I was once asked by a teenage girl in Paris if I could take a photo of her and a young guy she must have been dating as they had matching acne. Looking at her fuchsia keffieh with amusement, I asked her if she new the history behind it… I could see her regret asking me to take a picture as she got ready for the history class I was about to unleash on her.
But back to the abaya, also called aba. This wide “cloak” worn by women in the Muslim world, mostly when out in public, is commonly black in color. From the very anonymous black abaya, what we are currently witnessing is a considerable change in attire in Arab countries – adding colors, trimmings, appliqués, embroidery and so on. But how did we get to this point? There are varying accounts of the abaya’s origin. Some say Bedouin women wore these garments on their heads to protect themselves from harsh weather in the desert. Others claim that the black abaya came from Turkey and Iraq more than 80 years ago. Later on, the abaya would become a religious symbol of conservatism and modesty in Muslim countries.
In 1980, the abaya underwent a serious transformation when Saudi Arabia’s Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice started enforcing strict laws regarding the nature of the abaya and the way it was to be worn: plain black and that covered you loosely from head to toe as to conserve modesty.
Not until the 2000s did the abaya start to loosen up in trimmings, all the while sticking to its main purpose, which is to decently conceal a woman’s figure. This also brought a new aspect to the world of abayas: ranges in quality, price and color. These days abaya designers have gone and elevated it to new levels, transforming it into a stylish fashion statement that can reflect a woman’s personality and individuality while being functional, modest and trendy. Abayas are also adapted to seasons and occasions; having some lightweight cotton options for summer, or special abayas for Eid or Ramadan. While some may say that the abaya has lost its integrity with the wild and unconventional alterations, others justify the change by citing evolving times and a need for individuality. Clothes are always a reflection of the time and place they are worn, and the abaya is no exception. [/one_column][/columns]