Thursday, November 4, 2010

Saudi Female Wardrobe: a tutorial

One of the first questions people asked me after they found out I was moving to Saudi Arabia was, "Are you going to have to wear know...thing." Usually while pantomiming circles around their heads.

My answer was yes, and that generally elicited a few guffaws.

Most people back home just call the entire black get-up the "burka." But if you were to tell a woman who wears the hijab that you admire her burka, she's going to laugh at you and possibly get a little offended. Allow me to school you on the wardrobe of the Saudi woman.

This is a hijab (pronounced "hih-job"...or habab if you're my friend Kimmie)

(although Laura Bush is wearing it like a Kuwaiti in this picture. Saudis don't show any hair.)

In Saudi Arabia, 99% of the hijabs you see are black. Some will be mostly black with a little embroidery around the corners for decoration. You rarely see any other color as the dominate hue on the hijabs. I'm not sure why that is, because in other places in the Middle East, you see colorful fabrics and patterns.

Like this. I think this is perfectly lovely, but it's not acceptable in Saudi Arabia

The hijab shows your face, and depending on which region you're from, you can show a little hair. The looser your hijab is, the less conservative you are. If you're a Saudi woman, your hijab will be on and be on properly.

Some women don't wear the hijab. Note: when I say "wear the hijab" I mean all the time. ALL Muslim women in Saudi Arabia wear at least the hijab when they're out in public. But when a woman says she "wears the hijab," that means she wears it all the time, whether she is with women, men, or mixed company...for the most part. I work with a woman who "wears the hijab," but she doesn't wear it at school. However, if we take a photograph of her, she will stop us until she has put her hijab on. It's complicated, and I've not explained all the ins and outs, but I'll move on.

Most Saudi women also wear the niqab in addition to the hijab.

This is a niqab. (pronounced "nee-cob")

Note: I did not take any of the pictures posted. They were already on the internet, so I haven't invaded anyone's privacy.

What most people in the West would probably call the "burka" is actually the niqab. The niqab goes on top (or in front of, I guess) the hijab. It kind of looks like a bandana with a slit cut in it and straps attached so it can be tied to your head. So when the ladies are suiting up to leave school for the day, they put on their hijabs, and then tie the niqab on. Some will even put gloves on their hands as further coverage.

Generally, the wider the opening of your niqab, the less conservative a woman is, but let me be clear: women who wear the niqab are greatly respected here. I kind of equate it with a vegan among vegetarians. Vegetarians already live a different lifestyle. But when a vegetarian finds out a person is vegan, they often respond with, "Wow! How do you discipline yourself like that? I couldn't do it." That's how women are here. The women I have talked to who wear the niqab don't feel like it is demeaning or disparaging. They feel like it is their way to show their level of faith and to bring themselves closer to Allah.

This is the abaya (pronounced "uh-bye-uh")

This one is on a mannequin, obviously. It's the closest I could get to the typical abaya you see in KSA

The abaya is the black dress/robe/housecoat that most people assume covers from head to toe. Actually, the hijab combined with the abaya is what most people see. Generally, if a woman wears the abaya, she also wears the hijab, so it's hard to find one without the other.

Around here, though, you see a lot of women only wearing the abaya...but they are "Aramcons." Aramcons are the non-Muslim employees (or the wives of the employees) of Aramco, the Arab American oil company that is based in Dammam. In my experience, Aramcon women have almost a visceral aversion to the abaya and hijab. They seem to resent that they have to cover in this country, so they only do the bare minimum to escape the scrutiny of the mutawa. We often see Aramco women walking around the malls in just their abayas and their heads uncovered. Once I even saw two Aramco women walking completely uncovered!

Whenever the Mister and I go on the Aramco camp, the first thing I'm told when we meet up with our friends is, "You don't have to wear that thing here! Take it off!" Some don't seem to understand when I tell them that I really don't mind wearing it. It gets hot and stuffy sometimes, but it's not a big deal.

Anyway, Muslim women all wear the abaya here. As with the niqab, it seems the less frills and decoration, the more conservative you are. There are some very pretty abayas on the market. They have nice embroidery or cut is flattering. The expensive ones are made of really nice fabrics and they flutter and flow as the women walk past. I think it's quite ethereal.

I'll tell you more about the wardrobe of the women of Arabia in another post, including a video showing you how to tie to hijab. Until then, take a look at this video about why women cover themselves. I didn't find it terribly convincing, but it was interesting nonetheless.

Vicariously yours,


  1. You say the Aramco women just do the bare minimum to escape the scrutiy of the mutawa.. Does that mean it's lawful to let your hair be uncovered if the rest of you is under the abaya? It's fascinating to me that women go above and beyond the legal requirement. It sounds like the compulsion to fully cover oneself stems more from social pressure than from legal requirements. Is that true in your experience? What's the legal minimum, and how wide is the gulf between what's just lawful and what's not frowned upon? I'm full of questions!

  2. I think non-Muslim Western women are given a lot of wiggle room because they bring so much money into this region. If we were living in Riyadh, I think our experience would be much much different. I THINK the legal requirement is to wear the abaya and hijab, but I'm not sure on that. I'll check and then perhaps give you the answer in a Skype session? ::hint:: ::hint::

  3. There's a thin line between legal and social requirements for clothes in Saudi Arabia. It depends on what the hay'a (religious police) would do. They were a lot more extreme before, so you're lucky. Just make sure you're not in the wrong place at the wrong time. I don't think there's an actual written rule for clothes, not sure though.
    As for the social part, you should worry about guys who chase girls to harass them or try to get their number. It can get pretty annoying.

  4. Man, that is great clothes for the overweight woman that is old with a chicken neck or ugly birth mark on the face. Also if your hair is thin or you're balding or you just can't stand it all you can cover up in beautiful fabric and to heck with the crappy cheap ill fitting stuff I see everywhere. Now, do they have some miracle bra that doesn't chafe or bind? 'cause that would be super.