Reclaiming colour: Khaleeji women and the abaya

Reclaiming colour: Khaleeji women and the abaya
As women in the Gulf shift away from the traditional black, Sarah Al-Derham argues it reflects a change in society itself where women are no longer content to be passive.
5 min read
29 Dec, 2016
Women wearing abaya. Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates [Getty Images]

It does not take a filmmaker or media literacy skills to notice that a change in the colour of a character’s clothes marks a significant change within the plot or personality.

A bold colour could signify an increase to the character’s confidence, whereas, a shift to a darker tone may decode the opposite message.

In the Middle East, and specifically in the Gulf States, the colour black is the most common for women. In fact, the colour black is seen as the colour of the female national dress, the abaya.

If one searches for the meaning of abaya, they may find common words used to describe it, such as, over-garment, cape and black. But what many people do not know, even the khaleejis themselves, is that the abaya is not the authentic or traditional female outfit in the khaleej; the traditional dress is much more lively and grand. It is commonly referred to as thoub nashil, which is a brightly coloured dress made from light fabrics or silk, and laced with gold or yellow strings. The dress came in many colours; red, green, blue and even purple. They were known to be very expensive and many women wore them as a symbol for wealth and power. Khaleeji women always wore colour, and since the Gulf capitals were trading ports, they did not only wear colour but had the best fabric the seas could deliver from South Asia and many other places.

So the question now is, why has society grown fearful of allowing their daughters to wear anything other than black, is it the fear of change or disobeying religious teachings? When was colour stripped away from Khaleeji women? And who stripped it away? If the head is covered and the body is not outlined, then what are we, as a society, so fearful from? Well, it is difficult to pin-point exactly when and where the introduction of the black cloak was to the Gulf, but it can be argued that the black abaya gained popularity in a movement to cleanse Islam and return it to its purest state.

Khaleeji women had their colours taken away the same time they were encouraged to stop being active agents in the society

Another argument specifically goes back to the creation of the Saudi Kingdom specifically, when the Najdi male thoub was determined to be the official attire in the country; it is safe to say that the same rule went for women and the black abaya. Ironically, about the same time khaleeji women were encouraged to be homemakers rather than continue practicing trade in markets, running family businesses and even fishing and pearl diving in some rare cases. Khaleeji women had their colours taken away the same time they were encouraged to stop being active agents in the society; whereas men, who are required to be active, can sport any colour thoub.

That is not to say that women did not wear black before then. It was by a famous Umayyad poet, Al Darmi, during his visit to Iraq, that the colour black was historically promoted. Known as a poet who glorified women's beauty in his verses; he popularised black scarves in an act to help his friend, an Iraqi merchant, who successfully sold colourful scarves except for black. Sales of black scarves skyrocketed until there was no black left in the markets.

Though these are the arguments hinted by scholars and khaleejis themselves, we must keep in mind that a timestamp to the introduction of the colour black as the ‘go-to’ cannot accurately be confirmed as concrete data on the khaleeji way of life is scarce.

Recently though and especially in the past year and a half, khaleeji women began wearing colourful abayas. It is both common and uncommon depending on where they would wear them to. Unfortunately, the first people to object to the revolution in reclaiming colours were women themselves. Social media comments and hashtags were intended to be hurtful and demeaning, but many continued wearing colours and stuck with their beliefs. Television stations such as Al Rayyan in Qatar were instructed to not to allow women to appear in coloured abayas for interviews and to keep black abayas in the dressing rooms should someone show up in colour. Similar instances exist with female hosts in events and ceremonies, both private and public.

Khaleeji women have become more visible, and are highlighting their visibility through colourful abayas.

The obsession with women’s clothing has gone out of hand to the point that it threatens freedom of expression and individuality. And the only most-logical, non-cultural or religious conclusion I could come up with is the symbolism that coloured abayas carry. If we attempt to decode and translate the appearance of colour against the backdrop of social progress within the region we can see a direct correlation between women’s active role in society with the abaya shifting from black to colourful.

women have become more visible, and are highlighting their visibility through colourful abayas. They are entering a new productive era led by both women and men working hand in hand for the benefit of their nations. The symbolism and shift of colour in this narrative indicates a vibrant, productive and inclusive shift in the khaleeji societal progress, which enhances cultural identity and promotes individual identity independent from tribe and state but also balances between them.

Sarah Al Derham is Teaching Assistant at the Gulf Studies Centre in Qatar University and holds an MA in Critical Media and Cultural Studies from SOAS.

 Al Derham is also an award winning documentary filmmaker who produced 8 films tackling different issues and themes in the Gulf 
society; her films have been screened locally and internationally in film festivals and art exhibitions in Doha, UAE and London.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.