We were in the shuttle to work one day, and I asked my colleagues what the dress code was for an upcoming work event. Two women looked at each other, looked at me, and, laughing, said "abaya!" in unison. This has become a consistent theme.
Before coming to the Kingdom, I spent months trying to decide how I felt about the abaya. I read countless books by women, Saudi and non, who had lived in KSA and worn the abaya and, often, a full veil. I read all the available guidance on USG policy on the abaya, which basically supports a woman's right to choose whether or not to wear it. Which I support and appreciate. My opinion was as fully-formed as it could be before actually being in Saudi.
Now that I'm here, I've formed a love-hate relationship with my abaya. (I only have one, but I already have a need for another. I'm tired of lugging mine back and forth to the office on the off chance I might need to go out, so I need one to keep there.) It took me nearly a week to coordinate things and go abaya-shopping. I had a loaner for the couple of times I went out before that, but it was important to have one of my own. Buying it was a cultural experience in and of itself. A colleague and I perused several stores at a mall before enlisting the help of a nice salesman. (Because they're almost all men.) He didn't have one I liked, but he brought me to a store that did and helped with the negotiations. I love bargaining. I'm usually willing to pay the full price for something, but I love seeing how much of a discount I can get. Some people hate haggling, but I think it's great fun. So even though I spent more than I wanted on something I didn't wholeheartedly want, I got it for significantly less than its price. They hemmed it for me while we waited, and I walked out of the mall fully cloaked in my very own black nightmare.
And nightmare is how I want to feel about it. I hate the idea of it, the color of it, the necessity of it. I know I'm imposing my own Western beliefs and ideals when I see it and think about it, and I know many women wear it willingly, but I still see it through my own feminist lens. And now that I've worn one in the full onslaught of Jeddah heat and humidity, I hate it for its bulk, its heat-attracting and insulating properties, and its polyester, non-breathable qualities. I trip over its length, I have to constantly watch my sleeves - they're either too loose and long or too constricting and never just right, getting in and out of vehicles is a constant challenge, and sitting down can strangle you if you're not careful.
But in some ways, I love it. When my colleagues said the dress code was abaya, I breathed a sigh of relief. That's one more event for which I don't have to plan an outfit. It certainly makes getting dressed to go out a lot easier. A ratty t-shirt and jeans underneath, but to everyone else I look identical to all the other women. (Well, not identical by a long stretch. No matter how hard I might try to blend, I'm not really fooling anybody.)
Abayas have gone designer. In my few shopping ventures thus far, I've seen every manner of embroidery, embellishment, and embracing color on abayas. There are far more styles than I'd ever dreamed of, and a designer abaya can cost upwards of $6,000. (And those aren't even the ones from international fashion houses.) I must say that among this crop of (slightly) colorful and tricked out abayas, shopping becomes much more fun. There are zippered abayas, ones with snaps, pull-over style or traditional front-close, loose sleeves, fitted sleeves, butterfly sleeves, and all manner of pocket choices. And don't forget about the glitz. Rhinestones, beads, sequins, crystals, and anything shiny can adorn an abaya. My own is very tame by comparison, with only some simple black beading and coordinating decoration on the cuffs. I find myself wanting a more upscale one, with higher quality fabrics and some color. But do I really want to spend a couple hundred dollars on something I don't really want and will likely never wear again after this tour? Is abaya-buying a slippery slope; can you truly not stop at one? Is the "well I have to wear one, so I might as well wear a pretty one" mentality winning over the "I'm only wearing this because I have to, so I'm not putting any effort into it" one?
The abaya wardrobe lends a new perspective to makeup, hair, and accessorizing, as well. A recent FT article (07/19/2010, by Abeer Allam) had this to say: "When they leave their homes, the women of Saudi Arabia veil their faces and carefully shroud themselves from head to toe in shapeless black cloaks. While their faces might be invisible in most public places, the kingdom’s female citizens spend more on hair and cosmetics per capita than almost any other women in the Middle East." From what I've seen, this is true. The few times I've seen a large number of unveiled women in one place, they are impeccably made up, and they wear enough bling that it's blinding in large crowds. Designer handbags are also de rigeur, another status symbol when clothes aren't visible.
Once Ramadan (a more conservative time of year) is over I may test the waters by shedding my abaya on occasion. We'll see. The truth is, it's easier to wear it than to ward off the stares and disbelief when you don't wear it. I'm still not sure how I feel about it, personally and otherwise. But I know that I still groan inwardly every time I have to put one on. I never don it until the last possible minute, and as soon as I'm out of 'public' it's off again. But then again, I am far less likely to spill and ruin an outfit when I wear my abaya...
So the jury's out. And may never be in. But two weeks after arrival, I'm more conflicted than I think I thought I'd be.