The case for a modest abaya has grey areas

The abaya has become a fashion commodity; one that changes every few months to generate more sales. Pawan Singh / The National
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There has been a heated debate on social networks about the coloured abayas trend that has quickly spread in the UAE and other Gulf countries in the past few years.

Many people have rejected the idea altogether. Among them were those who see the black abaya as a symbol of Islamic identity or the national identity of women in the UAE and other Gulf countries.

Others say that a black abaya is a requirement for modesty and that coloured ones draw the attention of men, which defies the purpose of the Islamic way of dressing.

But supporters of the coloured abaya say a black robe was not an integral part of Arab and Islamic history and that Muslims in other parts of the world wear colourful garments without any religious objection.

While both perspectives have their merits, the whole debate over coloured abayas is missing an important point. The real issue is not the colour of the abaya so much as it being treated as a luxurious fashion item.

Sociologist Maryam Ismail raised this issue in her column in The National on Monday. She criticised the commercialisation of the abaya and how it’s now viewed as a status symbol rather than a modest garment for Muslim women.

She is right to be concerned. Abaya prices have been rising ever higher with every year. What has traditionally been a mid-market item has become a branded, high-end garment, with some designers setting prices as high as Dh15,000.

The local market has thrived along with the global Muslim fashion market, which has gained momentum over the past decade. A Muslim garment has been turned into a fashion commodity; one that changes every few months to generate more sales. The fashion industry in general is shallow because it promotes a culture that is based solely on appearance.

Shouldn’t this be our main concern?

The colour of the abaya itself doesn’t necessarily make it immodest because modesty has no particular colour. Modesty is a requirement, yes, but Islam doesn’t set a fixed standard as to the colour of dress or the style of clothing that Muslims have to wear.

The concept of the black abaya is relatively new to the region. According to Leila Al Bassam, a professor of traditional clothing and textiles at Riyadh University, it emerged in Saudi Arabia only in the 20th century, after it was imported from Iraq or Syria along with textiles and other goods.

The story goes that abayas became popular after King Abdul Aziz Al Saud distributed them as gifts to tribal leaders in the early 1930s during the establishment of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They were later enforced by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice that applied a strict interpretation of the Islamic dress code across that country.

The trend was later exported to the UAE and other Gulf countries.

It is true that in the time of the Prophet, women were known to wear black and other dark colours, but there is nothing in the Islamic texts to indicate that wearing other colours is not religiously permissible.

However, it’s also important to remember that the Islamic dress code dictates that a garment should not be worn to attract attention or for the purpose of gaining popularity or fame. Thus one can argue that a coloured abaya can attract attention if the majority of women wear black.

But it could also be said that the more women who wear colourful abayas, the less attention they will draw. Women wear colourful garments in other Muslim countries and there is absolutely no issue there because it has been the norm for centuries.

In the UAE in particular, colourful abayas might not be the norm now, but they could be in the future, if more and more women started wearing them. It’s natural that the way we dress evolves as society develops. This is why I think that the emphasis should be on the modest element of the garment, rather than on its colour.

Another point worth remembering is that the purpose of the Islamic dress code is to protect society as a whole by promoting not only a modest way of dressing but also modest behaviour. This is the idea that informs the hijab for women, one can argue, as well as a long beard for men. A public display of religiosity is supposed to make a person more conscious of their behaviour and this might (though not always) lead to a smaller chance of them committing sinful acts.

Sadly, the public debate about coloured abayas has only scratched the surface. The issue is not as simple as many people might think; it’s certainly not a black and white matter (metaphorically or literally). If the abaya is modest, does it really matter if it is black or colourful?

aalmazrouei@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @AyeshaAlmazroui