Both before and after our visits to Muslim countries (6 and counting) the question we are asked the most frequently at home is “Did you have to wear one of those things?”. Some people mean were we covered head to foot in burqas and others just wonder if we had to cover our hair. When we say “no” we are met with varying degrees of disbelief.
So with massive disclaimers (per Brunette’s insistence) we are going to share our understanding and experiences but want you to know:
- No Muslims, Christians, Jews or people of any religion were harmed in the writing of this post
- We do not endorse or condemn (or actually think much about) any religion
- We get a fair bit of stuff wrong so maybe some of this is too
- None of this is about you
- You either
We knew we wanted to write this post but it is rude to ask to take a photo of a Muslim (or quite frankly any) woman (especially if you’re going to put her picture on your blog) without getting her permission first. But Blonde loves to be the center of attention so she obligingly posed for this picture.
The headdress is a hijab and the black outerwear/gown/cloak is an abaya. So who wears what when? We used our keen reporting skills to answer this question for our readers.
Our first night in Doha we were jet-lagged, hence lacking our usual air of sophisticated reserve (by this logic we’ve been jet- lagged for well over 25 years). As we finished our small and alarmingly expensive meal at a quiet restaurant in our hotel three women walked in and sat at the table near ours.
They were young, wearing traditional dress, carrying expensive designer purses and wearing fashionable, sexy shoes. Brunette suggested that Blonde go over and ask the women if they would speak with us about their clothing. While Blonde pondered the idea we scribbled a list of questions in our impressive reporter notebook. This is the actual cover of that notebook (which cost 39 cents).
After developing our list of questions Blonde walked over, asked the women and they very pleasantly agreed to speak with us. They were also sisters and ranged from a 32 year old PR professional to a 28 year old mother of two and an 18 year old student.
Here are our hard-hitting interview questions:
Q1 Do you dress this way at home?
A1 No, only when they’re out in public and they do not wear the abayas when they go to other countries.
These women were well educated and have traveled extensively and told us that they do not wear the abayas when they go to Western countries such as the U.K. or America. They cover their hair but not necessarily with the same hijabs they wear in their country.
They also said that they really like America because Americans are so friendly. (Wonder if that would still be their impression if they dressed as they do in the their home country? Hope so.) The middle sister and her family had recently visited Disney World. She showed us pictures of her in pink pants, a cute top and a pink hat.
Q2 How many abayas do you have?
A2 “Many” (followed by quite a few giggles)
Q3 Are they custom made or do you buy them already made in stores?
Q4 Do you have different colors and ones for different seasons?
A4 Yes. They have some velvet ones for when it’s cool, lighter weight ones for when it’s hot.
Q5 Are there different styles for married versus unmarried women?
Q6 Do you ever wear them in colors other than black?
A6 Yes, they own quite a few different colors but prefer black because it’s “classique”.
Q7 Are they difficult to drive in?
A7 After the giggling subsided they explained that they have drivers, they don’t drive. They can drive and know how to drive but they don’t particularly care to do so. We hadn’t thought of that!
The sisters wanted us to make it clear that they wear the headdresses because of their religious beliefs and the abayas because of cultural tradition. This was an important distinction they wanted to have be understood. They like to wear the abayas because they said they offer some “privacy”. One of the women flipped open her abaya to show us that she was wearing blue jeans under it.
Our new friends also mentioned that Sheikha Mozah, the glamorous second of the three wives of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, former Emir of the State of Qatar, has begun to show a little more hair in the front of her hijab so many of the women in Qatar are following suit. The Sheika sounds like quite an interesting lady as she has a lot of influence in educational policy, works for the advancement of women, advocates against extremism and domestic violence and has established a place for herself in policy making. We say “You go Girl!”
Our last caveat, this conversation was about daily dress in public. It was not about what to wear when you go into a mosque. There are very strict rules about that and we discussed them in a post from last year when we were in Abu Dhabi and went to the Grand Mosque. You can read that post here.
We hope this post will help to demystify some of the misconceptions about women’s clothing in the Middle East and show it as being at least as much a cultural tradition as a religious mandate. It may be hard for Western women to believe the women in the abayas seem to be quite happy in them and to not feel oppressed by them but that certainly seemed to us to be the case.
Next we will report from an Amish bake sale and give you the scoop on why they dress the way they do! Hold on to your seats!