Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Unnecessary stares? Abaya comes in handy

After coming to Doha, I have realised how women use the burqa aka the abaya as a fashion statement. Back home, they simply wear it as an over-garment and the very sight of the abaya makes others feel that they are stout Muslims. But my perception of looking the abaya changed after seeing many women, young and old, slowly parading in shopping malls, making sure their fashionable floor-length coverings are seen.

Let me tell you, the abaya is a black over-garment worn by many Muslim women and in Doha, I have come across many glamorous girls shrouding their jeans and colourful tops with long black robes, mixing fashion with religion and tradition. Abaya is the traditional form of hijab or modest Islamic dress, for many countries of the Middle East.

I have seen some dedicated shops for the abayas and almost all the clothing section at malls have the abayas, and let me confess some are really cool and elegant. My Arabic teacher dons a butterfly-style abaya, also known as farasha. Tall and slim women can carry off the butterfly abaya, as there is no shape to it. It is loose with tight sleeves often embroidered with colourful threads. It is not tight-fitting like the French-style abaya, which is made to fit the body, and which most of the young girls prefer to wear to look glamourous. And sometimes I feel like eating whatever I want, not bothering about putting on weight and just covering myself with an abaya! Not a bad idea at all ;)

Back home, generally people think of black as something very gloomy, something related to death. And I, including my other Muslim friends at college, always used to feel that abayas are unattractive garments that remind us of death. My friends Mohseen or Azra or Tabasum or others never wore the abayas. I often wondered with them how anyone can voluntarily wear the abaya. I never had a way to find them attractive, I thought young women look old in them and always felt that they should wear bright attractive colours and not dark morbid ones. Maybe because the clothing under the abaya will not show, women tend to make fashion statement by their abayas. Maybe it will be a culture shock for south Indian Muslim women who visit Qatar, as they are used to the plain loose black cloth and not the multiple designs.

But seeing women in the Middle East, I think many women wear it for not only style, but also with some purpose. Maybe it offers many advantages over Western outfits. Vij’s friend’s wife who was working as a nurse in Saudi used to tell me how the abaya comes in handy many times. It was a convenience thing for her. She used to rush to the nearby market or for a quick shopping using the abaya. She used to whip it on over her pyjamas if she had to rush for a quick shopping in the morning.

I find it easy to switch between the abaya and western clothes. How many times have we not wished to avoid stares from workers? When I deck up for some function or a wedding I try to avoid myself from being stared at by the people on road and wish I had the abaya to protect myself till I reach the destination. I think that works out here, women happily use the abaya to avoid unnecessary stares. Plus, when women are plus sized, I feel the abayas come in handy J In these days, there is so much emphasis on being slim and wearing skimpy outfits. It’s like, the more revealing you are, the more acceptable you are.

But I also come across some women who wear the niqab so that nothing, but their eyes are seen. But as I have also seen, men here respect women, especially those in the abayas. At malls, I have seen guys helping them with respect, whether in pushing their trolleys, weighing the vegetables and fruits, helping them if there’s a queue, etc.  

I often bump into beautiful women who are dressed in traditional black, but faces layered with heavy make-up. It’s often amusing to see how strands of hair peep out from beneath their head covering, large gold-rimmed sunglasses adorning their heads. As I have heard from friends, they have 15-29 abayas in their wardrobe and it is so nice to see how elegantly they walk around malls in those floor-length robes making sound with their pointed heels.

When I came to know there are fashion shows and abaya exhibitions conducted regularly in Qatar, I couldn’t trust my ears. Yes, new designs in the abayas, from very loose to very fit, are available every day. Maybe designs from the west and other cultures influence these designs and in abaya exhibitions or fashion shows, young designers from the Middle East display their unique designs, and the Qatari women love to buy them. I have also heard that women exchange each other’s unique abaya designs and get them tailored. I have seen women wearing very funky abayas, some even having the Western influence. Some wear the abayas that are flowing on the florr and some slightly short where others can see their heels!

Many women here wear the abaya to please their husbands. I see a kind of admiration in the eyes of Qatari men when a woman in the abaya passes by. I think Qatari men like to see their women in abayas. As a friend was telling me the other day, they look very attractive in the abayas. Their beauty is restricted to just their men and not for others. It helps them protect from other men’s prying eyes.

When I was in India, I used to think that the abayas are unattractive garments, even though I love black colour. Maybe it is a part of culture which makes us think that black is not beautiful and is an inauspicious colour. I still remember how my parents were against me when I told them that I want a black KSIC saree for my wedding reception. It took me many months not only to convince them, but also to take my father to the KSIC factory. We had to place an order and wait for its arrival for nearly 45 days, as KSIC never makes black colour saree, as people don’t prefer black sarees. Even people at the factory were astonished when I ordered for a black saree, paying a whopping amount of nearly Rs 25,000 four years back. The saree with complete zari just looked stunning. It’s a different thing that my parents didn’t allow me to wear it for my reception. But I insisted my mom to wear it on that day and trust me, she looked stunningly beautiful in that saree, raising several eyebrows on that day. And yes, still I’m absolutely in love with that saree and I think, I have more than five or six black sarees in my wardrobe.

Ok, let me come to the point. I have passed through Souq Faleh on Al-Ahmed Street in Doha. It is known for its wide selection of fashionable abayas at reasonable prices. There are several shops selling the abayas that are beautifully designed. There are also tailoring shops that make custom-made abayas tailored to suit the measurements. Not just a contemporary abaya which is usually a robe, cut from light, flowing fabrics such as crepe, georgette and chiffon are available in the Souq, but also the abayas made in colours other than black too!

In fact, Souqs in Qatar are crowded with shops selling the traditional garment and I have seen several Qatari women shopping there to keep up with the latest fashion. Not just Qataris, even Egyptian, Indian and Pakistani women also throng such shops for the abayas. Some abayas are covered in crystals and some others in fanciful embroidery, and there are some even decorated with butterflies, clocks, alphabet and Chinese fabric.

As Umer was temming me one day, his mom wears “the niqab along with the abaya here and wears only the abaya back home”. And he feels that “the abayas should be simple in accordance with Islamic tradition”. “If women use the abaya as a fashion statement, then the very purpose of using the abaya fails. The more the fashionable the abaya is, the more it will attract men and it is nothing but haram,” he told me.

Even the memoir My Life in Doha by Dr Rachel Hajar mentions how convenient and easy the abaya is for women in the Gulf. Being born as a Filipino and married to a Qatari, she finds herself comfortable in the abaya. She says how her daughters too wear it and exchange the styles and designs with their friends. (p.51)

Let me briefly mention how other countries in the West see the abaya.
In 2004, France instituted a controversial ban on the wearing of religious symbols and clothing in schools -- a law that was widely interpreted as targeting Islamic headscarves. More recently President Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP party begun a push to also ban the abaya and the niqab in all public spaces in France. The parliament also passed a non-binding resolution on May 11, 2011 in support of such a ban.

France is one European country with the largest Muslim minority population (6 per cent, or 4 million citizens). The proposed abaya ban has opened difficult questions about national identity and the place of religion in society. Sarkozy was quoted in June 2009 as saying "the burqa is not welcome in France" and has since argued that it is a tool for the suppression of women. He also said: "The problem of the burka is not a religious problem, it's a problem of liberty and women's dignity. It's not a religious symbol, but a sign of subservience and debasement. I want to say solemnly, the burka is not welcome in France. In our country, we can't accept women prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. That's not our idea of freedom."

And a parliamentary commission, which concluded earlier in 2010, recommended a partial ban in spaces like hospitals and on public transportation. In an attempt to minimise the controversy surrounding the legislative effort, Jean-François Copé, leader of the UMP party in parliament, argued last week that the ban is based on security concerns. He said: "The visibility of the face in the public sphere ... is essential to our security and is a condition for living together," not religious discrimination.

Earlier in 2010, Prime Minister Francois Fillon asked the Council of State, a body that provides legal advice to the executive branch, to examine whether a full ban would be constitutional. The council found that such a law would most likely violate the French Constitution and could be challenged in court. However, it also found that a partial ban on face-covering garments could stand in certain "high-risk" places for security reasons. A similar law is already on the books in Italy, where a woman was recently fined 500 euros for wearing a niqab in public.

In April 2011, France officially banned women from wearing full-face veils in public places. Even though other European countries have drawn up bans on the abaya and the niqab, but France is the first to risk stirring social tensions by putting one into practice.

Belgium has taken great steps toward a ban on the abaya and the niqab. On April 29, 2011, the lower house of parliament approved a bill that bans the abaya and the niqab.  If any woman failed to comply with the law, she will be punished with a penalty of 137.50 euros ($195) and up to seven days behind bars in jail as a punishment.

Following France, Belgium became the second country in Europe to completely outlaw the niqab. Although Belgium has an estimated Muslim population exceeding 600,000, legislators estimate that only a small percentage, 300 to 400 women, wear the abaya. Opponents of the bill therefore argue that the root issue is Islamophobia in a country with a rapidly growing Muslim population.

Meanwhile, in making the case for the ban, the head of the Liberal Party, Daniel Bacquelaine, told National Public Radio: "To forbid the veil as a covering is to give [Muslim women] more freedom. I'm proud Belgium is the first country to do that."

Amnesty International's John Dalhuisen, an expert on religious discrimination in Europe, counters, "The Belgian move to ban full-face veils, the first in Europe, sets a dangerous precedent. Restrictions on human rights must always be proportionate to a legitimate goal. A total ban on full-face veils would not be."

Half of Germany's 16 states have passed laws restricting the wearing of religious clothing and symbols, including the abaya and hijab (headscarf), in schools. Meanwhile, five of these states have made exceptions for Christian items. Throughout Germany, women are not allowed to drive while wearing the abaya, allegedly for safety purposes.

In May 2010, Silvana Koch-Mehrin, a German representative in the European Parliament, called for a Europe-wide ban on face-covering veils, saying "the burqa is a massive attack on the rights of women. It is a mobile prison."

The Netherlands
Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom and well-known anti-immigration politician, has been at the forefront of the international movement to ban the abayas and niqabs. In 2006, he introduced legislation before the Dutch parliament to ban the abaya, but worried that a ban would breach religious freedom laws together with personnel changes in the Dutch cabinet stopped it from being voted into law.

Because of concerns over freedom of religion and offending the country's growing Muslim community, Dutch lawmakers have been especially reticent about the abaya ban in recent years. Yet 66 per cent of the population would support it, according to a February 2007 opinion poll. Wilders attempted to once again put forward legislation banning the abaya in public places in 2008, but concerns about religious freedom elevated the political opposition. And in 2009, Wilders suggested a 1,000 euro excise tax on headscarves, which he dubbed a "head-rag tax."

Turkey is officially a secular state; the wearing of veils almost vanished after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk launched his modernisation drive in 1923. Headscarves were practically non-existent in Turkey's big cities by the 1960s, but this trend reversed thanks to a religious revival in the 1970s.

Today, all veils are banned in universities and public buildings. The ban was introduced after Turkey's 1980 military coup; further restrictions were enacted in 1997. In November 2005, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the university headscarf ban against challenges, setting a precedent for current legislative efforts in Europe.

More recently, the election of Islamic-leaning parties such as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) has led to enforcement of the ban being relaxed somewhat. Still, every year, thousands of women -- such as Leyla Sahin, the plaintiff in the European Court of Human Rights case -- find themselves in trouble for refusing to remove their headscarves.

Lawmakers have made several attempts in the last decade to lift the ban, but all have been unsuccessful. Despite the growing influence of religious parties in government, the headscarf ban is unlikely to be overturned anytime soon; Turkish military leaders see themselves as protectors of Turkey's secular status and remain fierce critics of religion entering the public space.

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