The Abaya - head to toe covering for the women of Middle East. lt has become a fashion statement. You can even buy haute couture abayas. The women do not see wearing abayas as a form of oppression, but as a form of individual liberation. Today, they come in every cut and design conceivable.
Like Western-style fashion, there are abayas for different times of the day and occasions. Abayas for normal daytime wear are usually plain or have simple designs. Abayas for evening wear are more elaborate, with different cuts and intricate designs. Abayas for special occasions such as weddings and Eid are so exquisite that they almost look like black gowns. Diamante, Swarovski crystals, leather, lace, denim and fur-abayas are laden with everything imaginable. You can even get sporty abayas!
Many young women are pursuing higher studies and careers in fashion design: one graduate is now working in Paris for Valentino. They are setting up their own abaya businesses and are opening their own boutiques.
The majority of Middle Eastern women have excellent taste in clothing and accessories and follow fashion as women tend to do all over the world. Just because tradition and society expects them to wear an abaya and sheila, it does not mean that they put on the first thing they see when they wake up in the morning.
Women of the Middle East are some of the world's best groomed women, with regular visits to salons and spas, waxing body and facial hair, threading their eyebrows and getting manicures and pedicures. Under those sheilas is hair professionally cut, dyed and highlighted.
The women love to shop and they sport haute couture bags and accessories, chic shoes and fashionable outfits under their Abayas.
I had the pleasure of working in Abu Dhaubi and Dubai on my first trip to the Middle East several years ago. Dubai is filled with people that wear clothing from all cultural backgrounds from the three piece British tailored suit, to the sari, Abaya and western attire,
Abu Dhabi seemed to be less influenced by western culture and everyone of the UAE Nationals that attended my first seminar arrived in the traditional attire of their culture. I on the other hand had worn a lovely skirted suit. This was not my best choice.
My next visit to the Middle East included a trip to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi. I received a special invitation to visit Riyadh from the Aljoud Institute for Women.
This required two visits to the Saudi Embassy in Dubai with my Canadian passport, new photo and the appropriate amount of money. Upon entering the Embassy, I received a lot of attention and it was not favorable. I was waiting in the men's area of the Embassy and they were gesturing me to leave/move away. I then discovered that there was a women's room. Finally my Visa was approved.
The plane from Dubai to Riyadh was boarding and I asked the flight attendant when I should put on the Abaya. Her response was "it is not mandatory however, the Arabs would feel more comfortable if you honored their culture and traditions." So, I donned the Abaya and wondered if I would ever be on American soil again.
I flew in to Riyadh and was guided in to the VIP rooms of the airport upon arrival. Chandeliers, prayer rugs and coffee in brass pots with lovely gold rimmed, china cups took me by surprise. Two men approached me with a sign bearing my name so I followed them. They took my passport and my baggage claim tags. Things were not looking good. Then in to a car with people I did not know, that did not speak English and they had my passport and luggage.
Arriving at the hotel as the guest of King Abdullah, I was greeted by a French staff member. He spoke perfect English. My first words to him were "I am counting on you personally to take care of me." His words "yes, Madam, you are perfectly safe here."
I had a lovely suite, butler and wonderful service. I wore the Abaya, ate in the family section of the hotel dining room and not one man looked at me. It is considered disrespectful to look at a woman in their culture.
I had the pleasure of teaching etiquette classes to the women and children. After the classes, some of the women snapped open their Abaya and much to my surprise they were wearing stunning designer garments. Well educated, several degrees, speaking several languages fluently and they were fashionable.
I also had the pleasure of a visit to King Abdullah's Palace as a guest of my host, the owner of the Aljoud Institute for Women.
I am now quite comfortable in the Middle Eastern culture and have had the pleasure of many trips. My client list includes executives from United Gulf Steel, Aramco, Emirate Technical Associates, Al Jassim Engineering Consulting, Habibsons Bank, Qatar Airways and Emirates Airlines. My clients also include members of the Ruling Family of Dubai and King Abdullah's family members. I am honored and delighted to have enjoyed the people and the culture.