The Abaya – Everything You Always Wanted to Know


Whenever I meet someone and they learn that I’m Saudi, the first thing that surprises them is that I’m not wearing a headscarf or Abaya.
I explained the reason behind this in the first post from this series of culture-centered articles. Today’s topic is somehow related to the national dress subject as well.

Covering your Face

Most people usually wonder if I had to wear the Abaya when I was living in Saudi and if I had to cover my face. Let me explain to you how things work when it comes to covering your face in Saudi.
Firstly, it depends on which city you live in. Some cities are more open than others. For example, living in Jeddah would not require you to cover your face or worry too much about it. While in the capital – Riyadh – the rules are more strict. The religious police are more prominent, so you need to make sure to abide by the rules while living there. In the small towns, those rules are obviously even more strict. But like I mentioned, I can only speak about the city where I grew up – Al Khobar. In my city, the rules are somewhere in the middle between Riyadh and Jeddah. We’re not very strict. I didn’t have to cover my face when I lived there. I did wear the Abaya and headscarf though. At the same time, we’re not as open and liberal as the folks in coastal Jeddah. So, you still need to follow the rules of wearing the scarf properly at all times. And the religious police have power and quite a strong presence.

It Depends on the Place

Having to cover your face is also dependent on the place. If you’re visiting the local (traditional) market or shops, then it makes sense to pay more attention to your appearance and behavior. While a visit to one of the big shopping malls involves a more flexible approach to the rule. If you were a woman working in Saudi Aramco, you wouldn’t even have to worry about wearing an Abayah in the first place. You can wear normal Western clothes – even if you were a local lady.
Saudi Arabia is a huge country. This means that you have different types of social classes and categories. If you come from a conservative family, and you’re still in your twenties, and you live in Al Khobar (my city) then you would still be wearing the Niqab or covering your face. In this case, the location or city of residence is irrelevant. Since you are following the rules of your own family, social class, background and not those of the city you currently live in. That’s why, even in my liberal city there are many young (and old) Saudi women who wear the Niqab or cover their face. This is either out of choice (their own beliefs), out of respect to their family traditions, or because they were asked to do so by their fathers or mothers.
The same concept applies if you come from a liberal family (which I don’t). Then no matter where you are in the country, you will play by your own rules. Basically, liberal women would go to the more open and flexible spots. They will avoid visiting the strict and conservative public places. That way, they can follow the rules according to their own principles.

At what age do Saudi girls have to start wearing the Abaya?

Again, this depends on what school you attend. It also depends which religious sect you belong to and which social background you come from. I attended a private school in Saudi. As such, I was obliged to wear an Abaya to school at fifth or sixth grade. So, I was 10 years old when I first wore the Abaya. But it was very flexible as I didn’t have to wear a headscarf with it. It was a very cool version of the national dress if you think about it! Just a button-down Abaya which was more like a long coat, and no scarf or head cover. I think this lasted for one year only. Then, I had to start wearing the headscarf and eventually cover my face (at school only). The face cover was introduced by the ministry of education and not the private schools themselves. But it was a strict regulation and there were absolutely no exceptions to the rule. All of us had to cover our faces as we went into the school gate and again as we left in the afternoon. Did I wear a Niqab? No. We would simply use the veil on top of our heads to cover our faces. It was a thick black veil though. This means that it was challenging to find your driver or car at the end of the school day!

How does the driver find you if you have your face covered like everyone else?

Basically, we had backpacks – just like everyone else in the rest of the world. So I guess our personal drivers recognized us from our distinctive school bags. I had the maid waiting for me inside the school building. This made the task of finding my driver way easier. She would know where our car was parked. So I would follow her to the car.
As a teenager, my friends and I wore super trendy trainers. We were a Westernized bunch of Saudis. Our Western ways were strongly reflected in our personal styles, our accents and obviously our mindsets and lifestyles.

Being a Saudi Teenager

As a Saudi teenager living in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, I would be spotted in a solid black Abaya, uber cool backpack, a pair of super stylish trainers, Of course, I also had my face covered in pitch black fabric. This was the original look outside the school campus only. When going out to other places in the city, I wore the Abaya only and covered my hair with a veil. I could leave my face open to the public to see. In a future post, I will be talking about how I was working with mostly men at an IT help desk in Saudi Aramco. We will examine what I used to wear to work and whether I had to wear my Abaya or not.
Until then, here are some thoughts for you:
Do you believe that Muslim women should have the option to wear discreet and loose clothing or not?
Do you think wearing the Hijab reflects how committed you are to your religion?
Do you think women of a certain religion should be obliged to follow a specific dress code when out in public?

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