Ask Ali: The ins and outs of how to wear an Emirati abaya

The abaya is our traditional outfit for women. It’s not only Muslims who can wear it, but any lady who likes this style.

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Dear Ali: I'm new to the UAE, but I've visited a few times. Now, I'll be settling here for a few years and I'm wondering if I'm allowed to wear an abaya? Where are the best places to get an abaya from? TR, Dubai

Dear TR: Emiratis and Arabs in general are very hospitable people, although I’d like to give you some tips so you can avoid any misunderstandings.

The abaya is our traditional outfit for women. It’s not only Muslims who can wear it, but any lady who likes this style. Some people may think you’re an Emirati or an Arab when seeing you for the first time and may even start talking to you in Arabic. No problem – it happens. Though if a woman one day wears an abaya in public and another day appears in short, open and revealing clothing, society may not appreciate this – someone who wears an abaya, regardless of nationality, still represents our national identity.

Traditionally all abayas were black, loose and stitched on the sides. The abaya was made from a piece of material large enough to cover the full body from the top of the head to the toes. Nowadays, abayas cover the body from the shoulders to the toes and are worn with a shayla (a chiffon headscarf). They may be any mix of colours and are often decorated with crystals or lace; they can be closed or opened at the front and a variety of cuts.

My advice is to go for a black abaya that’s not too loud with its colouring or design, as it’s always respected and considered more acceptable to be worn by Emiratis and non-Emiratis than abayas that are screaming with colours and decorations. It’s preferred, by our cultural standards.

Nevertheless, it’s up to you whether to be traditional or fashionable – choose the style that suits you and your taste. The majority of the abaya shops will offer what is “in” this season, so don’t worry too much about whether it’s outdated or not.

The way our women wear an abaya is simple. Get good-quality fabric, tailor it and keep it well maintained. A custom-made abaya will cost the same as an off-the-rack one, so don’t be in a hurry when shopping. Let the tailor take your measurements and make the abaya in your size.

Another important thing has to do with grooming. Your abaya should be clean and well pressed when worn in public. The technical issues of wearing an abaya I’ll leave for ladies, as I still haven’t figured out how they manage to walk in the long abayas without tripping. Sometimes I tease my sisters by asking if they’re working for malls, as their abayas sweep the ground.

There are shops in the popular malls that have branded abayas with a high price – more than Dh1,000 each. An average price for an abaya is about Dh300. You can find these abayas in Abu Hail shopping centre in Dubai or in the streets (there are dozens of small abaya-only shops in Sharjah and Ajman). Most of the shops sell ready-made abayas, though many of them have a tailor who can adjust abayas or even sew a whole one.

These tailors know Emirati women’s tastes very well and are very experienced at designing and stitching abayas for whole families across the UAE. I’m sure you will have a great experience and enjoy wearing our traditional outfit.

Remember, it’s not about what you wear, but how you wear it and how you behave and where you go while wearing it.

Ali Al Saloom is a cultural adviser and public speaker from the UAE. Follow @AskAli on Twitter, and visit to ask him a question.

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