As an expat woman in Riyadh, I learned early on that we don’t just arrive in Riyadh, or in any part of Saudi Arabia for that matter, the same way we arrive in any place in the world. We had to research and ask around what it would be like to live in Saudi Arabia. One of the reasons why The Pink Tarha exists today is because when I was first coming to KSA, I had a hard time finding enough resources on how women thrive in here. I only knew one thing back then: women in Saudi Arabia needs to wear the abaya, a black dress meant to hide a woman’s body. That’s why I’m confused when I read the news on a ban of sexy abayas a few months back because in the first place, the abaya is worn not to be sexy. It’s meant to be worn loose. Personally, I like my abayas to be puffy and comfy. In my eight years in Riyadh, I have grown to love and hate the abaya. I couldn’t even pinpoint what I feel about it anymore. It just gives me the feels. THE FEELS.
And so does my abaya. She (er, it) is taking over this entry for a while. So here are the things the abaya wants you to know about it:
1. I have historical, cultural, and religious roots.
Wearing the abaya in Saudi Arabia did not start from women thinking that they just want to wear a black robe-like clothing eons ago. Hindi ako trip lang. I’m not also born out of a Harry Potter robe fad. I don’t want to delve in issues of culture and religion in this entry because it’s too much my brain can spare (as an abaya, I have a brain, haha) and I don’t think I can write in full depth how and why the abaya was enforced and so I’m going to quote The Economist since it seems to be a legit source. “Ever since, Saudi Arabia’s laws have been based on this creed’s strict version of sharia, or Islamic law, which in reality incorporates many desert traditions that have been cloaked in Islam. The full covering for women is considered to be one of these customs. But today it is enforced by the religious police and zealous volunteers.” All they require is for women to dress modestly but because modesty can be interpreted in more ways than one then asking all ladies to wear the abaya is probably the easiest standard to enforce. The Pink Tarha, being ambassadresses of positive vibes, doesn’t encourage women, especially expats, to think that wearing the abaya is a form of oppression. Don’t waste your time trying to change things around here. While it does restrict you from wearing what you want in public and being free to show off your fashion sense and style, many women here also feel the need to use the abaya for various reasons. So whatever it is, be it religious or cultural or politics, the abaya is here to stay (yay me!).
2. Women wear clothes under me.
A few years ago, The Pink Tarha wrote an entry about the abaya and the first comments they got from guys were like “Oh, I didn’t know you women wore clothes underneath your abaya.” I’m horrified! Do guys really think women don’t wear anything under the abaya? Under me? Like women actually use me as a dress of some sort? ROFL (er, rolling on the washing machine laughing!). Okay, so there might be women who only wear their underwear the abaya (whoah) but I’m pretty sure most women wear ordinary clothes underneath me. Be it just pajamas, house clothes, jeans, shirt, dress, gowns, whatever… they wear something underneath! Women consider the abaya like a robe or a coat that they drape over their normal clothes when they go out. My fabric is sometimes a bit sheer and women wouldn’t want to be caught “nude” in it especially when they’re out in public. Also, I am made to be loose and not form fitting. I shouldn’t make anyone look sexy because that sooo defeats my purpose.
3. I get women in all kinds of mishaps (but it’s not my fault, srsly!) .
For women expats, they usually have a phase of getting to know the abaya and getting used to me. They just don’t wear me for the first time and come to know how I work. I’m not as simple as you think (you think being a clothing of a woman who is complicated is simple?!). Why? Because women are expected to do all things with the abaya especially when they’re out and about in public. Here are some challenges that they have encountered while wearing me:
a. My hems get caught in everything. It gets caught in the leg of chairs, in the door of the car, in the foot of someone walking after them and in their foot when walking… And for someone who’s not used to wearing the abaya, these are normal occurrences. During Janelle’s first year in Riyadh, she was at the passenger seat of their car and they were traveling to work when the car beside them kept on honking at their car. She didn’t pay any attention because she thought they were just making papansin. Until she caught the gesture of the driver of the other car and he was pointing at their car’s door. She looked down and discovered that the hem of her abaya got trapped in the door and some of the fabric were showing outside. Embarrassing! Haha!
b. My sleeves eat too. Most women would surprisingly see traces of their food in the sleeves of their abaya, especially at the wrist area. There’s foam from a cup of cappuccino, rice from a plate of kabsa, cream from a dessert, sauce from butter chicken, etc. They usually don’t notice it at first that they unknowingly touched the tip of our food and they leave stains that are sometimes hard to remove.
c. Women still trip on me! Eight years and Janelle still has episodes of tripping on her abaya. So much for walking with confidence and grace haha! Just the other day, she was holding a few grocery bags and she was climbing their stairs when she stepped on my hem and nearly stumbled. Get out of my way! Hahaha! She forgot to pull me up and hold me so the front fabric won’t bother her while climbing.
d. The wind get the better of us. When it’s windy, I tend to open especially when my buttons are not that great to begin with. They snap and cause abayas to open in the middle. Now, this is why women wear normal clothes underneath the abayas, guys. They’ll never know when the sandstorm hitting has a gutsy wind that unravels us just like that.
e. We abayas don’t want to exercise. Or we prevent women from jogging and running as fast as they want to. Not that they’re actually permitted to run like the wind yannow.
4. We are fashionable.
The abaya dress code doesn’t mean there is no room for personal expression or fashion. When Janelle first went to Saudi Arabia, her sisters said that she can now save money because she doesn’t have to buy clothes since they wouldn’t be seen anyway. That’s not the case with her; that’s not the case with us abayas. Even if women don’t buy fashionable clothes (which they still do btw), they tend to splurge on abayas since we’ll be the clothes seen in public. And why not right? There are so many designs of abayas to choose from. Embellished with crystals? Embroidered with colorful threads? Sporty? Classic? Elegant? With hood? Without hood? With loose sleeves? Like normal clothes, I embody what a woman’s fashion sense is. Looking at Janelle’s abaya collection, I would say she always go for comfy chic. What does your abaya show about you? There’s nothing like shopping for a new abaya. Women spend hours at it! I suggest you guys sit it out while your wives, daughters, mothers, do it because it will take some time. Like, a long time. Haha!
5. Wearing me has advantages and disadvantages. Women love and hate me.
Like most things, there are pros and cons in wearing an abaya. The cons would be number 3. I get women in all sort of minor mishaps and accidents BUT I also have my pros.
a. I protect you from the sun and sand. While my color black absorbs heat and makes you feel warm, I do protect you from the heat you know. I tend to absorb the heat and block the sun rays so you are actually wearing 100% SPF when wearing me. I am your sun protection. And yes, when the sandstorm hits the city (which is pretty often now that it’s summer), I also protect you and your clothes from the sand and dirt. Okay, okay I can be hot during the summer but you can always pick something looser and made of cotton. We come in various fabrics and styles that adopt to any season.
b. I make you look slimmer. Hello, I’m black and black makes you look thinner than you really are. Even if I’m loose, I still tend to get a few pounds of your getup. No matter what your size is, I fit perfectly and you look fit wearing me. Talk about the perfect LBD! Long Black Dress for you sisters.
c. I make dressing up faster. Because with me covering whatever it is you’re wearing, you never have to worry about what to wear! Since most of happenings, restaurants, and malls will require you to be in public, you have to wear the abaya. So whatever you wear inside, be it pajamas, shorts, dresses or fine, just your underwear, they won’t be seen anyway. Unless it’s a private party and they allow non-wearing of abayas. No matter, you can always feign not comfortable removing your abaya and you still get away with whatever clothing you are own under! I’m your husband’s best friend too since they don’t have to wait forever for you to dress up! Haha! Oh, and the tarha (veil) that I come with? It’s your fix for bad hair days.
d. I hide you. Wear me and wear a niqab on your face and you become invisible. Invisible in a way that you melt with the crowd of black and no one can identify you immediately. I come handy when you’re hiding from an enemy, don’t want to mingle, or escape from whatever situation you want to escape from. I can even hide you from your kids if you feel like playing hide and seek with them in the malls (no, I don’t want you to do this, haha!). Of course I’m not saying you use me for anything bad. Nooooo. Please don’t use me from hiding from your husbands in the malls just because you want to shop more and they already want to go home, haha!
e. I love and hate you too. I love you because you use me every day but I hate you when you leave me in Saudi Arabia and go on your merry ways anywhere in the globe without me. Whyyy? But I love you still. Just come back and wear me again!
Janelle here again. You’ve heard (read) the abaya “talk” and I’m pretty sure you got lots of insights from her (er, it). The abaya is one of the first things I got to know about Saudi Arabia? Why? I asked my father before going here what are the different things I will experience as a woman in Saudi Arabia and his only answer? “The abaya!” Haha! Yun lang talaga promise?!? I guess you all know that our experiences in this Kingdom doesn’t stop from wearing the abaya. Whatever you feel about the abaya, it’s necessary to wear them so I suggest love them, care for them, and enjoy looking different in photos from other women residing in the rest of the world. Naka-LBD kaya tayo all the time! 😉