Many women around the world choose to cover more or less of their bodies. This is done for cultural or religious reasons or just personal preference. In most countries (not all though) it is their right to do this, free from prejudice or judgement. In Saudi Arabia however, this is less of a choice.
One of the questions I get asked most often about life in Saudi is about covering up and wearing an abaya. Do I have to wear an abaya? What is it? Must I cover my face?
Covering up the body, neck to wrists to ankles, is pretty much law, for females of all nationalities here. Therefore, almost all women wear a minimum of an abaya when out in public. This is a thobe/dressing gown style garment that loosely covers the wearer. Although the wearing of an abaya is not technically a requirement, going out wearing anything other than one could (worst case scenario) result in arrest. The majority of Muslim women living in Saudi Arabia cover their hair with a hijab and a large proportion cover their entire face with a niqab – a veil that covers the entire face and chest, sometimes with an opening for the eyes. Most Westerners don’t wear a headscarf, just an abaya. I keep a headscarf in my bag, which is recommended. This is in case of unwanted attention or in the unlikely event of being asked by police or mall security to cover up more.
In Saudi abayas are usually black, although there are other colours and many variations in pattern and design. The wearing of abayas also differs around the country. For example, in Jeddah on the West coast, it is more common to wear coloured or elaborate designs, whereas here in Al Khobar it is still fairly rare to see anything other than traditional black. Recently I have noticed that some young women are choosing to dress modestly and wear an open abaya over the top. As a British expat I probably wouldn’t do this to be honest, as it would attract attention and I feel it is best to blend in and respect local customs. However it is refreshing to see people taking more of a relaxed approach to the modesty required here.
Just because women cover up, does not mean they do not take pride in their appearance. Many women spend a large amount of money on their abayas and have different styles for different occasions. Make up is also taken very seriously, as the face or even just eyes are on show. I could never do as gorgeous a job with an eyeliner as many of the ladies. Strong, beautifully made up eyebrows whilst often seen as a fairly new trend, have been on point here for a long time.
Non-Muslim women living in the country have mixed opinions on the need to cover up.
Some women resent not having the right to choose whether they cover or not. It can be a little frustrating going out to shop or eat and not being able to “get ready” in the same way you would elsewhere. I have clothes languishing in my wardrobe, unworn. Abayas can be tricky when out at restaurants, the long sleeves can trail in food if you don’t watch out. A sleeve dripping with carbonara is never a good look. Getting up and down stairs takes a bit of getting used to as well. The long skirt can be a tripping hazard. My abaya has also proved tricky with the pushchair, I keep getting it caught in the wheels!
For the most part though, non-Muslim expats understand that this is the way of the country they live in and are happy to respect this. They can be a little hot during the summer but abayas are fairly comfortable to wear. Putting one on becomes habit, much like grabbing a coat before you head out during Winter in the UK. As said before, they don’t need to be unattractive as there are lots of styles around. You can also wear pretty much whatever underneath (it is recommended that this is still modest just in case). This has proved fantastic post-birth, as I haven’t needed to worry about the fact that I have like two things I fit into and are suitable for breast feeding. Plus, going for dinner in your pyjamas or sweats makes for a super comfy evening out!