The Invasion of the Abaya

It wasn't until I started working in the community and attending the odd prayer at the mosques that I noticed most women wearing long black garments called abayas. Long sleeved and baggy in style, sometimes with embroidery but most often not, these garments are donned by most women who enter the mosques in Calgary. Yet while the abaya is Arab in origin, it has started to seep onto women of other ethnic backgrounds, resulting in a muting of the vibrant and colourful cultural outfits that adorn Muslim women all around the world.

And this is what I consider the invasion of the abaya.

When I see or think about an abaya, it conjures up images of Saudi Arabia. Sure, it's modest in appearance, but it's demure black colour is not in the least Islamic and there are many other ways to guard ones "ornaments" from public view. Yet enter a mosque in Calgary to pray without an abaya and I guarantee that you'll get weird stares. The abaya has started to invade most other non-Arab cultures in Calgary as well. It's really quite unfortunate when I see South Asian women wearing an abaya OVER their colourful and gorgeous shalwar kameez suits as they enter the mosque. Or when women from various African countries hide their Kaftans under a black abaya. Or when I get stared at for using a light coloured "chadoor" (used in Iran) to cover me while I pray. One lady in a mosque asked me why I was wearing the chadoor and where I was from, and not in a friendly/curious way. This question is a pet peeve of mine...but I'll save that for another blog entry.

It seems like Saudi has invaded the West in more ways than their Kings buying elite hotel chains.

And of course, the abaya is another way in which Muslims and non-Muslims alike confuse religion for culture. The abaya is cultural, not religious...being modest is a virtue of Islam, but the Quran doesn't outwardly state that the black abaya is the only way to be modest. Iran does a similar thing by enforcing women to wear longer shirts/thin jackets that are knee-length, but this fashion hasn't really seeped into other Muslim countries. And so it looks Islamic to non-Muslims to see Muslim women predominately wearing abayas and they become confused when you don't wear one and wonder if you are Muslim! UGH!

Thinking about the colour black and having to wear it day in and day out, I wonder what wearing the abaya does to a woman's sense of spirit. Sure, if women are used to it and don't mind, then it's another story. Black does wonders for not attracting attention (so people say, but in the West, I wonder if the black abaya does the opposite) and also helps create your very own hot yoga room thanks to the strong sun overseas. But I know that if I was forced to wear a black abaya everyday, I'd start to go looney. Colour is one of the ways in which we are able to express ourselves and it is tied to our emotions whether we like it or not. This may raise a point of contention for many Muslims, but it's true. I imagine a gorgeous sunny day in Calgary and wearing a black abaya versus a colourfully modest (no, this is NOT an oxymoron!) maxi dress...which one will make me feel comfortable and happy? Which garment most accurately represents me?

[And as a side note...we need to be talking to reverts/converts to Islam to not feel like they MUST wear an abaya. Islam is not a cult and thus we don't need a uniform. There's not enough educating around this area, especially when revert/convert women enter mosques and musallahs and that's all they see Muslim women wearing. But of course, God forbid someone tell them that they don't need to be covered in black from head to toe. Even though this information may greatly help their transition into Islam if they're not having to re-define their outward appearance in a huge way.]

Muslims were created diverse for a reason. We're definitely not all Arab (only 20% of Muslims are, so let's dispel that myth right away) and we don't all need to wear a black abaya. I love attending Eid prayer and seeing all the colours and outfits represented by the culturally diverse Muslims in Calgary. It's the one day where no one wears black. And you feel good praying when you're joyous! So why not feel that way each and every time you pray? Why not shine your heart and spirit to Allah when you're praying instead of being weighed down under a dark and depressing colour? Wouldn't you want to look and feel your best when you're praying?

I give kudos to those out there who are trying to redefine what an abaya is. It doesn't have to be polyester, black, or plainly coloured. Abaya Addict ( has a wide range of maxi dresses and jeweled abayas that defy the traditional black garment. Kaftans (a secret obsession of mine!) are raging on the Islamic fashion market. And I personally love Moroccan abayas (jellabas) as they are often NOT black and contain handmade embroideries of contrasting colours. The list goes on and on...and it's about time that this generation take over the black abaya and create additional options to fit everyone's needs.

So let's remember that while we are all Muslim, we don't need an outward uniform to define that we are. And we certainly don't need a country with extreme counter-Islamic laws to dictate what Muslims should wear either. 

And is not the new black!


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