After a week of wondering in vain why Gulf women wear the black abaya’ over their already loose and colorful clothing, I decided to do a little investigating. (See previous post). The only difference between the abaya’ and their home attire is color. I was sure that color could not possibly be the deciding factor as to why women wear the abaya’ in public as opposed to their more traditional dresses and scarves. And I was correct. It’s not color, but it’s also not modesty. In response to the question, “Why do you wear the abaya’ every day?”—every woman in my small sample of six women said, in different words, “just because.”
My issue was with 1) the color black, and 2) the double covering with no increase in modesty (I made it clear that I understand using the abaya’ cloak to cover other clothes, such as jeans, tee-shirts or anything tight or revealing. I just did not, however, understand the redundancy). Some said it was required by Islam (not true). Some said that it was in the Hadith (not true). Some said the Mohammed said to wear black (not true). Some girls even asked me where it came from. Eventually it came down to other people. Other people will look at them if they don’t wear it. Not necessarily looking at them because they were showing anything more…a sexy bit of collar bone or some womanly curves; rather because they would simply stand out. The power of a homogenized culture boggles the liberal mind. After just years, not even a generation, a trend can become enforced—a cultural, even more than a religious, uniform. Most women here know that the abaya’ is not traditional Omani clothing, but they have no idea where it did come from, so much so that they turned to their resident western fashion guru—me—to find out where the abaya’ came from, and when.
I’m all about people making their own decisions….so long as they are informed decisions. I am done pondering why Gulf women wear this black robe over their already modest, loose dresses. The deeper and much more important issue (although it may not seem to be more important in this heat) is why these young women don’t know the history that they put on every morning. They are fulfilling unknown fatwas; following nameless rulers; abiding by the edicts of a stringent form of Islam that they cannot name. Why are these women so ignorant of the forces that control them?
Perhaps the examples are clearer here in the Arab Gulf—the quiet oppression and confident cooperation stand out like a sore thumb to an aware outsider. But it is crucial to rise above one’s immediate surroundings and look around at the rest of the world. Can the lessons being learned here in my little Omani town be applied all over the globe? People are passively, or at least unknowingly, cooperating with their silent oppressors everywhere. It just happens to be blisteringly obvious here.