What Is an Arab Abaya?

Lainie Petersen

The Arab abaya is an enveloping garment worn by women in conformance with Islamic modesty codes. While there are several different types of Arab abaya styles, they all provide complete coverage of the body, with long sleeves, long skirt length, and a reasonably loose fit. Abaya styles and types vary by region, community standards, and the personal preferences of the women who wear them.

A woman wearing an abaya and a niqab.
A woman wearing an abaya and a niqab.

Muslims are expected to dress modestly. In particular, women are often expected to cover their entire bodies, with the exceptions of their hands and feet, as well as their hair while in public or in the presence of men to whom they are not closely related and therefore could theoretically marry. As a result, clothing styles have developed in predominately Muslim countries that meet these standards, including the Arab abaya. In very conservative areas, such as Saudi Arabia, the most common color for an abaya is black, although abayas are sold in many colors and some of them may also be ornamented with sequins or embroidery.

A caftan, or loose dress, is often incorporated into an Arab abaya.
A caftan, or loose dress, is often incorporated into an Arab abaya.

One common type of Arab abaya incorporates a long, loose dress or caftan with a hood. This provides a woman with additional coverage on her head, although she will generally be expected to wear a hijab, or headscarf, underneath the hood. A woman may also choose to wear a face veil known as a niqab.

Other types of abayas are hoodless and may resemble long dresses. The garment may also button down the front, giving it the appearance of a long coat. When wearing this type of Arab abaya, a woman will also wear a hijab that provides coverage of her neck, collarbone, and chest.

The abaya is typically worn to provide additional coverage in situations where women will be in the presence of men. As such, when they decide to wear the abaya, it is usually worn over clothing that is already quite modest. On the other hand, some women may choose to wear more casual revealing clothing under their abaya, particularly if they are concerned about the heat or if they plan to visit friends or relatives for whom covering up is not required.

The question of embellishment of an abaya or other covering garments is a matter of some controversy. Some Islamic scholars frown on wearing garments that attract attention through embellishment or that denote the social class of the wearer. Individuals who wish to purchase an abaya for travel to a country in which they are commonly worn should take care to choose an Arab abaya that is in keeping with local norms and customs.

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