My First Abaya

By | June 6, 2011

I just read My First Afghan Burqa a newly published article in the  New York Times, and I feel compelled to respond based on my own experience.

In the article, the author describes wearing a burqa for the first time as being a pretty terrible experience:

I felt rejected with my burqa down, as if I were not good enough to be seen in public. I leaned back in the seat and felt a wash of passivity come over me. Nothing was demanded of me except silence. I could sleep through life in this veiled state…

Nowhere in the article does the author acknowledge that she is the outsider and that this practice is the norm in that culture.

Let me make an analogy: If you walk down the beach in Miami in a bikini you don’t get funny looks. But if you walk through an office building or a church in a bikini in Washington, DC, you’ll probably get asked to leave. It seems so unfair of her to walk into a culture so foreign from her own and act like she should be entitled to act and wear in a way that is out of line with that culture’s norms.

In Saudi Arabia, most women wear abayas – a black gown with a black scarf to cover the head and face. The first time I wore one, I felt covered, but I felt culturally appropriate and sensitive to the expectations of the people I would be interacting with. I did not feel rejected, suffocated, or awkward.

Does that make me any less of a feminist? Absolutely not.

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  • Sorry trying to give you a star – not -9 stars. You make a good point but there is not getting away from the heat of wearing a black abaya in searing Saudi temperatures, the difficultly of wearing a long gown and holding small children’s hands and travelling down an escalator safely, being hissed and shouted at by crowds of (cowardly) men because you don’t cover your head. The only benefit of wearing an abaya in KSA was it didn’t matter what you had on underneath!

  • Thank
    you very much for sharing your thoughts. Yes, women should have a
    choice as well. What a pity that even many women seen to share misogynic

  • Katie

    Claire, are Western women required to cover their heads when traveling outside of KAUST in addition to wearing the abaya?

  • Hi Katie – This is a tricky question as there are no hard-and-fast rules on these things. In my experience, in areas with lots of non-muslims, such as shopping malls in Jeddah, it is okay to walk around without your head covered. In other areas where it is a mostly-muslim population, it is customary to cover your head out of respect for local norms. I usually bring a scarf with me and do my best to be respectful of the cultural norms.

    As for colored trim – yes this should be fine especially in Jeddah. I prefer to wear mostly-black abayas, but they often have a splash of color to them. I also own a few all black abayas which I use when traveling to other parts of the country where an all-black option is more the local norm.

    Hope this helps!

  • Katie

    Definitely! That’s pretty much was I was thinking but I wanted to Double check with someone who’s experienced! Thank you for your help!

  • you’re very welcome!