The evolution of the abaya

More than 90 per cent of pious Muslim women in the Muslim world do not wear abayas.” It’s the kind of statement often argued in liberal Muslim circles in the West, not in conservative countries in the Middle East that adhere to strict interpretations of Islamic Law. But this quote came out of Saudi Arabia this week, when Sheikh Abdullah Al-Mutlaq stated that women in the country should no longer be forced to wear the abaya.

Though this reflects his opinion, and doesn’t directly signal a change in legal policy, Al-Mutlaq is no Twitter activist looking to stir up controversy. He’s a senior council member of Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body.

By law, Saudi women must wear the abaya in public places, although some cities in the country are more lenient than others. In Arab countries like the UAE, the abaya constitutes national dress, but many local women opt to wear Western clothing instead. The “religious” requirement of the garment is frequently contested, since the Quran mentions modesty in chapter 33:59 but doesn’t explicitly mandate that women wear black, floor-length robes.

As translated by Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, the verse states: “O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close round them (when they go abroad). That will be better, so that they may be recognised and not annoyed. Allah is ever forgiving, merciful.”

The difference between religion and culture is often misconstrued, explains Alia Khan, chairwoman and founder of the Islamic Fashion and Design Council (IFDC). “I want to first make it clear that IFDC is not a religious organisation; we don’t try to interfere in people’s religious opinions, and we respect the journey that they’re on,” she says. “The abaya, from our perspective, is not necessarily a religious garment. It’s a cultural garment, more recognised in the Middle East, that allows you to comply with modesty-based guidelines.”

Khan speculates that if Al-Mutlaq’s recommendations were to cause a change in Saudi Arabia’s law, and dress codes were subject to looser interpretations, then the country’s female residents would invariably become more experimental with fashion. “I think it would open doors, naturally, to Arab women being more open to wearing whatever they’re comfortable with, that might replace the abaya. I think there is going to be a lot more flexibility and we’re going to see a lot more creativity when it comes to wearing modest clothing in this region,” she says.

Khan’s IFDC recruits and promotes talent in the realm of modest fashion, and last year, some of its designers showcased their work on catwalks in Italy and France. Next month, IFDC will be hosting a fashion-week alternative in Dubai called Pret-a-Cover Buyer’s Lane, featuring modest-fashion brands from around the world – many of whom give their own updates to the traditional abaya silhouette.

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