Her younger sister Abeer has 30 abayas–she is a filmmaker and has one abaya to wear for
work, an abaya she doesn’t care about getting dirty. Then there are formal ones for parties and weddings. A few abayas for going to the mall. An abaya or two for going out in the evening for a walk with friends. An abaya, perhaps, for visiting friends and another for visiting relatives.
When I spoke to Abeer earlier in the month, when she was here in Boston for a few days, I told her I felt liberated int he abaya, because I didn’t’’t have to think about matching up an outfit, wearing something old and worn out, or even having to think about what was under the garment. Abeer was quick to point out that everyone
in her generation is aware of fashion and the price of your abaya. Even though it seems to be a plain black garment, it isn’t. An abaya is a statement of your identity and relationship to fashion.
Wafaa, who has been living and working in the States for the past 5 years, has two abaya.”When I go home to Riyadh for a month I don’t need more. “Women in Riyadh wear black abaya. On the coast they wear more color. So I need a daily abaya and a nicer one for celebratory occasions.” She says she experiences the same thing I do when I wear the abaya–a kind of liberation–when she wears street clothes in Boston. “I feel I can approach people easily. I can ask questions. I can talk to anyone,” she said. “When I wear the abaya at home, I feel like I can’t talk to people I don’t know.”
In previous generation, Wafaa family lived in Syria. While we chatted she wore a beautiful, hand made garment that the Syrian women wear. It is velvet woven with a metallic thread that glitters. She explained she could not wear this in Saudi Arabia when she went outside the home. “It is not considered a prober garment for a woman n Saudi Arabia.” In Syria, however, the women wear open garments like this, not abaya which fully covers under garment.
I have been wearing the traditional garment a woman who lives in Saudi Arabia might wear
when she goes out of her house to the market, to work, to visit friends and family. It is an artistic experience for me. In no way am I interested in cultural appropriation or making a fashion statement. I would rather say my wearing the abaya has been a form of cultural appreciation, a beneficial celebration and reaching out to women of a different culture.
Yes, I have found the abaya to be liberating. Mostly liberating as an artistic garment that allows me to be looked at and to look out in a different way than when I wear my normal clothing. It heightens spacial awareness and expressions on people’s faces. In some situation, being in an abaya turned heads–like when I was pumping gas at a Western Massachusetts gas station. The burka and niqab are the physical manifestation of the belief that women should not be seen in publicMany people are engaged with cell phone activity and notice nothing that’s going on around them. When I wear the abaya and talk to people, no one has been impolite, though some people have avoided looking at me. Probably the garment makes them feel uncomfortable, or they just don’t know if it is all right to look, talk to or approach a woman wearing an abaya.