Saudi columnist Maha Al-Hujailan wrote in the English-language daily Arab News on November 6, 2006, an article titled, "The Nature of the Abaya," in which she says that the abaya - the black full-body robe worn by Saudi women - is not simply a garment, but is rather a means by which men confine women and impose on them restrictive patterns of behavior.
The following are excerpts:
"The black abaya worn by Saudi women is a garment which attracts the attention of foreigners - especially Westerners. In fact, the abaya is now a recognized sign of our community. The older generation of Saudi women - our mothers and grandmothers - did not know the abaya and have only become familiar with it in recent years. Saudi women used to wear a piece of material or cloth to cover their hair; once that was put on, they then went to work - in the fields, at home or wherever - without experiencing any ethical, social or religious problems.
"At present, the abaya has been transformed and has become a symbol viewed by some Saudis in religious or social terms. In fact, some even describe the abaya as an accessory which adds an element of mystery to women. It allows men to imagine something beautiful and exotic which is in fact very often unrelated to the reality beneath the abaya...
"We must not deny that the abaya is an exciting garment in many ways. For instance, to outsiders and others unfamiliar with our culture, it suggests a hidden mysterious beauty. Within our community, it functions on both a religious and a social level, or it may be little more than a burden for women not accustomed to wearing it. We have to be aware that the abaya and the way it is worn have behavioral consequences that deserve social, psychological and cultural studies...
"As elucidation, I will use an example from real life. Because of her sympathy for Arabs and Muslims, Donna, an American woman, decided to wear an abaya in an attempt to see how it felt and how it influenced her behavior. She wanted to show sympathy to women wearing abayas, especially after various incidents against Muslims in the post-9/11 world. She wore an abaya and walked along one of the busiest streets in a major American city. She tried to be as normal as possible, talking to people, laughing and behaving as usual. She said that she never felt the abaya was restricting her or limiting her movements or her freedom.
"Among those who observed Donna, however, were some Muslims, Arabs, and even some Saudis. The Saudis were upset by what they saw and told Donna so. When she asked why, they explained that she was using the abaya in an invalid way. She then became curious to find out what they considered a valid way to use it. They explained to her that she must walk slowly, must look down when walking and keep her eyes more or less in front of her - no glancing from side to side, in other words. She must not talk to anyone or laugh loudly and certainly must not address any remarks to anyone lest they misunderstand her purpose in doing so.
"To say the least, Donna was astounded by their remarks and realized that they were not simply talking about a garment to be worn but about their perceptions of what an abaya symbolized. They seemed determined to deny that a normal human being was under the black material. The truth is that those Saudi men articulated something that the Saudi lifestyle and customs have created. The abaya indeed covers a typically weak and frightened character (a woman of course), who views herself as a sexual entity confined in a well-defined space she can never escape from. This is why the whole culture of the abaya imposes so many restraints upon women. One of the restraints is that she must walk as if her feet were hobbled and she was unable to move easily and normally. Nor is she allowed to look around and observe the surrounding world comfortably, as slowly or quickly as she might like. The abaya has also contributed directly to preventing certain basic movements; for example, she can no longer move her hands normally. Aside from that, ordinary free conversation is forbidden and is replaced with low and often unclear speech that makes little sense."
"The Abaya Makes Women Appear Humiliated, Submissive, and Blindly Obedient to Men"
"The question that comes to mind is whether our grandmothers had to deal with all these things or with the mindset that has produced them. The answer - negative of course - can be explained by saying that male culture has forced the abaya on women, colored it with certain attitudes and used religion to buttress and support their ideas of what an abaya is and how it should be worn and used. It all depends upon selected religious interpretations, with the necessity of ignoring others which fail to support or do not go along with the basic premise. The abaya makes women appear humiliated, submissive, and blindly obedient to men; and for men, it represents their sexual thoughts and desires for women.
"But how did men succeed in convincing women to transform the free personality that Allah endowed them with into enslaved characters wearing an abaya? The process was not simply a mental one. It was a combination of emotional factors which were cleverly exploited. Men used women’s weaknesses to make women believe that an important part of the male-female relationship was the man loving the weak and submissive elements of a woman’s nature. He then named these elements respect, honor and correct behavior. These do not exist objectively but can only be explained according to the individual man’s desire and will - in other words, a totally subjective conception.
"What is strange is that women accepted the idea and were soon submitting themselves to the prison of the garment, the walking slowly, the looking only straight ahead - just to fulfill, it seems, what men imagined the abaya to be all about.
"Women’s imaginations, however, seem to have gone to work to create new and more complicated garments which would confine her more than ever before. The old abaya was a simple, on-the-shoulder garment, open on both sides; nowadays women wear abayas which rest on their heads, making them look like large walking crows. As for other abayas, they occupy the wearer with keeping them wrapped around the shoulders, the head and the face so that the woman can’t move without worrying that one or more of the bits will fall and she will stand revealed.
"This business of abayas is really of a piece with the Shura Council’s banning physical education in girls’ schools. Women taking exercise or having physical education does not fit with 'the abaya culture.' The abaya confines; exercise does the opposite. There would have to be some new male-oriented explanation to justify how girls could play games and enjoy sports. Who knows? There might yet be a new spiritual sport to emphasize the great gift given to women in the abaya in which they use only their eyes and fingers!
"Many explanations and interpretations of the abaya seem to be part of a strange phenomenon in which women enjoy being deprived of their free will.
"More than a few women are apparently happy wearing the abaya and burdening men with all that the garment suggests and evokes."