This week, #DebutDoll Lydia – who is an expat living in Saudi Arabia – tells us what it feels like when it is the law to cover up.
Many women around the world choose to cover more or less of their bodies. This is done for cultural or religious reasons, or just personal preference. It is their right to do this, free from prejudice or judgement. There are also places where it is less of a choice.
Saudi Arabia is one of these countries. Covering up the body, neck to wrists to ankles, is law, for females of all nationalities. All women wear a minimum of an abaya when out in public. This is a robe/dressing gown style garment that loosely covers the wearer. In Saudi these are usually black, although there are other colours and many variations in pattern and design. It is also recommended that women carry a headscarf with them always. This is in case they receive unwanted attention or are warned by religious police or mall security to cover their hair. Although the wearing of an abaya is not technically a requirement, going out wearing anything other than one could (worst case scenario) result in arrest. The majority of Muslim women living in Saudi Arabia cover their hair with a hijab and a large proportion cover their entire face with a niqab – a veil that covers the entire face and chest, sometimes with an opening for the eyes.
How does this feel for non-Muslim women living in the country?
As with everything, people have mixed opinions on the need to cover up. Some women resent not having the right to choose whether they cover or not. It can be a little frustrating going out to shop or eat and not being able to “get ready” in the same way you would elsewhere. Clothes end up languishing in your wardrobe, unworn. abayas can be tricky when out at restaurants, the long sleeves can trail in food if you don’t watch out! A sleeve dripping with carbonara is never a good look. Getting up and down stairs takes a bit of getting used to as well – the long skirt can be a tripping hazard!
For the most part, non-Muslim expats understand that this is the way of the country they live in and are happy to respect this. They can be a little hot during the summer but abayas are fairly comfortable to wear. Putting one on becomes habit, much like grabbing a coat before you head out during winter in the UK. You can wear pretty much whatever underneath (it is recommended that this is still modest just in case). Going for dinner in your pyjamas or sweats makes for a super comfy evening out!
Abaya designs are becoming more fashionable and varied. Many designers specialise in creating beautiful styles; even Dolce & Gabbana have released an abaya and hijab collection. These high-fashion styles are most commonly worn in slightly more liberal countries, like the UAE. In Saudi, they are usually worn to events rather than just out to the shops, where more basic black or grey feels safer and less conspicuous.
Words: Lydia Morgan