Many non-Saudi people are now asking themselves, "why don't they get rid of it all together"? Trust me, the abaya's extinction ain't happening any time soon. For well over a decade now, what kind of abaya a woman wears is like wearing a public advertisement of her moral values, level of religious dedication, and ethnic background.
I established from before the time I got here that I wasn’t going to wear a "head" abaya. I’d been forewarned by my ‘bad-girl’ Saudi friends about how awkward and uncomfortable they are so my decision was made before I got here. To make matters worse, my mother in law bought me a head abaya and sent it with my husband preceding my leaving America. I gave this monstrous, heavy black tent a test run and it turned me sour. It was much bigger and heavier than this one:
Upon arriving here the first thing I did, while wearing that big ugly heavy abaya from MIL was go to the souk and place an order for a "shoulder" abaya to be made for me. I had to be advised as to what the local styles were so that I wasn’t pegged as a foreigner or weird looking just by the sight of me. I never got one of the really skinny or showy abayas, I always had them cut very wide and flowy as well as forgoing all the sparkly crystals and embroidery. There was a catch…I was pregnant. After a few months my baby belly became really obvious so I decided to return to a head abaya so I didn’t look like a black python who’s trying to digest a whole rabbit. I went and had one made with lighter fabric than the one my MIL sent me, no zipper or snaps down the front (old-fashioned), and a slimmer design like this one: I found out it wasn’t so bad. It’s actually cooler than the shoulder abaya. After wearing it awhile I was mostly unbothered by it (except getting in and out of the car with baby stuff). I cooled down even more by forgoing the rectangular scarf under it all, just wearing a three-piece face veil with no scarf under it all. Mmmm, breezy. Loved it. I found out some unexpected benefits: the flirters all but left me alone.
Perceptions of women wearing an abaya from the head:
-She is a religious woman
-She is a traditional woman
-She is not looking to flirt
-She is modest
- of course she's Saudi
Pros of wearing head abaya:
- Judged by others with the above listed criteria
-If I put my hand up to the a/c vent in the car I’ve got a central cooling system that goes up my sleeve and all around inside my abaya.
-I can hide friends underneath my abaya with me…no joke, I did this at a wedding once with a friend who couldn’t find her’s when the groom was going to enter.
-Easy to breastfeed a baby under. The whole kid fits under there and people maybe wouldn’t even guess the kids there.
-Don’t worry about a big, huge, pregnant belly. You’ll still look pregnant but it’s not that obvious…you could just be fat.
Cons of wearing a head abaya:
-Hard to look left/right, up/down without the stupid thing needing to be either held on or readjusted.
-Once you get up from a seated position you gotta hoist it back up onto your head.
-Hard to carry stuff on your shoulder (purses, baby bags) without yanking it off your head.
-Can't manage carrying a wiggly baby/toddler with all of the above issues.
Perceptions of women wearing an abaya from the shoulders:
-She is modernized
-She’s a “bad” girl
-She MUST be looking to flirt
Pros of wearing a shoulder abaya:
- Unobstructed movements including looking around, getting up and down from seats or in and out of cars.
- Carry as much as you can.
- These two pros are ALL I need to prefer a shoulder abaya
Cons of wearing a shoulder abaya:
-Although maybe ok for a teenager, looked down upon as undignified for anyone older than that. -All of the perceptions listed above.
-Here comes the flirters.
-Cant breastfeed as discreetly as with a head abaya.
-You look weird very pregnant.