A brief history of the abaya, between traditional clothing, religious symbol and “modest” fashion

A brief history of the abaya, between traditional clothing, religious symbol and “modest” fashion

This Monday, September 4, took place the first French school year without an abaya, this long loose dress whose ban was announced last week by the Ministry of National Education in the name of secularism.

Sand and sun

The abaya, “a loose coat made of one piece” (1), is first of all a traditional garment which was born in Mesopotamia four millennia ago, with the aim of protecting oneself from the sun and sand in the desert. It is then a large cotton or wool canvas which is wrapped around the body, leaving only the face, hands and feet visible.

In his Detailed dictionary of clothing names among the Arabs, published in 1845, the Dutch orientalist Reinhart Dozy sees it “the characteristic clothing of the Bedouins of almost all times”. Each tribe then has a distinctive abaya, by its cut, its material or its embroidery.

An Islamic symbol

The abaya is becoming popular and becoming a symbol of Arab and Muslim identity, while the Middle East, and particularly the Gulf, is in the grip of a return of religion, following the defeat of the Arab armies against Israel. in 1967. If wearing the abaya is not recommended in the Koran, Surah Al-Ahzab encourages modesty for women: O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the wives of the believers, to bring back their main sails. »

After the hostage-taking in Mecca by fundamentalist rebels in 1979 and in a context of competition with the young Islamic Republic of Iran, King Khaled Ben Abdelaziz Al Saud wanted to give assurances to the proponents of a rigorist approach to ‘Islam. “Seeing protest movements emerging, the regime is extending religious influence over society in order to strengthen social control,” explains Stéphane Lacroix, professor at Sciences Po. The king increases the prerogatives of the religious police. The latter then enforces the wearing of the black abaya for women, which becomes de facto the norm.

This obligation was specified in 2000 in a fatwa, a non-binding opinion, from the Saudi Permanent Committee for Scientific Research and Guidance, the kingdom’s religious authority. The abaya “lawful” must be “of a thick, non-sticky and fully covering fabric”, “the opening of its sleeves must be narrow” And “it must not include any ornament likely to attract attention and be free from drawings, decorations or writing”. Above all, “it must not resemble the outfit of infidels, women or men”.

“In a country where the law is not codified, it is the religious police who enforce the fatwas pronounced by the great ulemas and transform them into constraints,” explains Stéphane Lacroix.

Mastour fashion

The fatwa does not prevent the mutations of this garment and even its transformation into a fashion accessory, far from the strict criteria of Wahhabism. In 2007, the first sporty abaya was created, with more elastic fabric and pastel tones to withstand high heat.

At the same time, the abaya was revisited by Arab and international designers, who rode the emergence of fashion mastour (“hidden”) or modest fashionwhich makes modesty and modesty its watchwords.

Several ready-to-wear brands such as Uniqlo, H&M and Mango are launching abaya lines to capture the women’s clothing market in the Arabian Peninsula. Haute couture is not left out. In 2016, Dolce & Gabbana released a collection of fitted, colorful, patterned hijabs and abayas. Style trumps piety.

Researcher Noor Al Qasimi explained, in 2010, to Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies that “the fashion phenomenon of the abaya goes against its original meaning without completely hindering the hegemonic order of Islamic patriarchy. It thus constitutes a form of passive resistance.”

At the same time, Saudi Arabia is opening up a little towards the status of women, under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed Ben Salmane. The latter went so far as to declare, in 2018, that wearing the abaya is not obligatory. “It is up to women to decide what kind of decent and respectful clothing to wear“, he believes. The one we call “MBS” certainly does not change the law, but puts the religious police on the shelf, relaxing the constraint on the wearing of the black abaya.

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