Expats, Why are you still wearing the abaya?

When I was growing up in Saudi Arabia in the 70s and 80s, we did not wear abayas. We went shopping in Khobar with the understanding that our legs and shoulders must be covered. We would even go in jeans. It wasn't until the 80s, after the Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power in Iran and the 1979 uprisings in Qatif and Mecca, that the Kingdom started to go back to more conservative ways. By the time my parents retired in 1987, we were going to Khobar in thobes, although not abayas.

In the spring of 2018, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that it was no longer a requirement for women to wear abayas or cover their heads. 

“The laws are very clear and stipulated in the laws of sharia: that women wear decent, respectful clothing, like men,” the Prince said. “This, however, does not particularly specify a black abaya or a black head cover. The decision is entirely left for women to decide what type of decent and respectful attire she chooses to wear.”

With the Kingdom looking forward to tourism, that's another big reason not to wear abayas. Female tourists will not be enthusiastic about wearing that extra layer. In my opinion, it's in the best interest of the country to get locals used to foreigners not wearing them.

before I stopped wearing one
So why are so many women, particularly expats, still wearing the abaya when they don't have to?

There is definitely no problem with an expat choosing to wear an abaya out of respect to the Saudis and Islam. More power to them. And abayas are convenient in some ways. They cover you up if you have a problem with body image or lack fashion. Sometimes it is a matter of laziness. You can throw on an abaya and just be in underwear underneath. In many ways, it can be similar to lounging about in your pajamas all day.

When I came to Jeddah for my three month contract, I bought a modern, cream, zip-up abaya with pockets. I also bought a thobe. When I arrived, I sort of felt guilt-tripped into buying a more traditional, loose, black/blue one. Once I realized they were no longer required, I stopped wearing them.

I do wear my thobes into town because they fit the conservative, loose, covering criteria to still be respectfully dressed, but I don't wear an abaya over them. I also have loose Cambodian harem pants with a long sleeve top that I wear. I've even gone to Thuwal in jeans. Again, no abaya.

by Skna Hassan
By the way, when did the black abaya even come into being? I tried to research it and can't find any indication of when it started being the black tent version. Black has been around for a while, but keep in mind, that for centuries the women wore traditional, tribal attire that was long and covering, but still colorful and decorative. You can see many examples at the Al Tayabet Museum in Jeddah (picture at top). Also in the artwork of Skna Hassan, who traveled the Kingdom to research the attire.

Yet my abaya revolt doesn't stop the urge to want to buy another abaya. They have changed so much over the years that they can be quite the fashion statement. Colors, fabrics, trims all make for more interesting abayas. It's been hard to resist buying another, but I'm back to the U.S. and they would just end up tucked at the back of my closet. Pointless.

So don't wear them if you don't want to! Especially when it's hot! Who needs another layer?!