Black is a color to which one becomes blinded in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabian women are covered from head to toe in black – sometimes with their eyes hidden behind a full veil and with their hands covered by black gloves. Muslim women from countries other than Saudi Arabia are covered in black from head to shoulders, with scarves covering their heads. Sometimes the scarves are green – blue – white – patterned. Western women usually forgo the scarf unless goaded by a zealous muttawa (religious policeman).
But, the times they are a-changin’! The Washington Post recently ran an article (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/27/AR2007052701180.html?hpid=topnews) about a group of women who are changing the world of the abaya by introducing a little color to the fashion palette of the Arabian woman
Oddly enough, even before reading this article, I had seen variances in abaya fashion and commented on those variances to my wife. While I’ve seen nothing as colorful as the abayas shown in the pictures accompanying the WP article, I have noted a sizable number of women with embroidered hemlines, sleeve edges, and necklines. Additionally, two to three times a week, I will see an abaya with an embroidered pattern on the body of the robe – either front or back – or both. I was meeting a friend and co-worker at the airport the other night, and noted a teenaged girl, with hajib (scarf), no veil, draped fashionably around her neck and head, wearing an abaya with a beautiful and colorful floral pattern done in reds, greens, and blues adorning the back of the garment.
My favorite embroidered pattern has to be the one I saw just before a trip back to the States in February. I was walking through the mall, heading for Starbucks I think, when I spied this woman with hajib and veil, and an abaya emblazoned across the back by the black and orange Harley-Davidson emblem. Would that taking pictures of women didn’t get you landed in jail!
I have not seen the abayas worn open in the front like a long coat, which the article describes. However, I have seen some interesting variants. While some of the more modest women are covered head-to-toe, many of the women wear fashionable strappy high-heels, usually with jeans, and sport professional looking pedicures. In fact, the toes and the eyes are two areas where Arabian women seem quite willing to express themselves. They may not reveal their mouth, but the veil cannot cover immaculate eye make-up done with techniques that would probably make a professional Hollywood make-up artist jealous.
Another trend I’ve noticed over the past several weeks are women – usually young girls in their late teens or early twenties – who drape the veil so that it falls loosely below their noses and provides a tease of a glimpse of their upper lip. This strikes me as particularly flirtatious and a bit rebellious, as it draws attention to them – serving the opposite purpose of the abaya.
I recently had an amazing conversation with a young Saudi Arabian man who works for me directly. We started discussing various items of interest that two intelligent people from different countries might discuss in order to get a better grasp of understanding about each other. He’s British educated, so he’s seen a bit of the world, and he understands the apprehension that Westerners have regarding the way women are required to dress in Saudi Arabia. I brought up the veil, and he told me that, contrary to popular thought, Saudi women are not required by law to wear the veil. He said that most do so because of peer and family pressure, but that there are many Saudi women who do not do so. He said I should not assume that a woman wearing only the hajib was not a Saudi woman. I was pretty surprised, but I believe he was being honest given the context of the conversation and much of the remaining content.
As I indicated earlier in this post, I took a trip back home to the States in February. I left King Khaled International Airport (KKIA) at about 1am on a Thursday morning heading for Frankfurt, Germany. A fair number of Saudis took the flight as well, and the women boarded in full abaya, scarf and hajib. Sitting across the aisle from me, maybe one or two rows up, a Saudi man, his wife, and his three daughters took their seats. The plane took off, and about the time the landing gear receded, the flight attendants began their rounds. I gave my order and glanced around the cabin and realized that the veils were gone from the faces of the Saudi man’s women folk. Interesting, I thought. I put my headphones on and started trying to find some music that interested me. A few minutes later, I looked around, the hajibs were missing from the man’s wife and daughters. We couldn’t have been more than twenty minutes into the flight. I picked up the magazine in the pouch of the seatback in front of me and thumbed through it for a few minutes. I looked up, and across the aisle, where completely covered females had sat less than forty-five minutes before, I found a beautiful, fashionably dressed middle-aged woman with auburn hair and three equally beautiful and fashionable teenaged girls where nameless and anonymous females had once sat.
Only one woman got off the plane in her abaya, hajib and veil – and it was black.
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