So, I decided that I should buy an abaya before heading over to Saudi Arabia. Although many people in Saudi said that I could enter the Kingdom dressed simply in conservative clothing and a head scarf then go abaya shopping once I was there, I personally felt that the awkward stares in the airport combined with the fact that I did not know how soon after my arrival I would be able to go shopping or be expected to show up at work meant that having at least one acceptable outfit before leaving.
Searching the internet and asking around lead me to find that there are a few “boutique” shops that sell Islamic clothing around, and the prices range from 70-200$. ouch. Online shops were less expensive, but having zero experience in wearing abayas, I was quite hesitant to order something, no matter how descriptive the measurements were.
Finally, I discovered a tiny little Somalian shop in White Center. I GPSed my way down there last Friday (completely forgetting this was the weekly holy day *facepalm*), and pulled into a very empty parking lot with several small immigrant run shops. There was a lady in abaya/hijab sitting on the curb in front of the shop with her cell phone tucked up under her hijab so as to reach her ear without exposing it. She nodded politely at me as I passed her, presumably thinking that I was heading to one of the other shops. When I tried the door of the Somalian store, and peered in the window disappointed that it was locked, she looked up in surprise.
“Oh! you wanted to come here?” she exclaimed, “What do you need to buy?” I explained that I needed to buy an abaya for my upcoming trip to Saudi Arabia, and she grinned broadly, quickly opening up the shop and escorting me inside. “Of course, you need black.” she said, her English was good, but clearly accented and marked by the occasional misplacing of small articles and prepositions that many EFL learners struggle with.
Suddenly it became a dress up game. We were like little girls trying on fancy dresses as she pulled out abaya after abaya for me to try. Initially, I had felt very strongly that I would prefer an abaya that buttoned or zipped up the front, because the idea of shuffling in and out of an over the head floor length gown several times a day seemed so unappealing. My school does not require us to wear the abaya for work, but we have to wear them between home and work, so I would have to put it on and off at least twice every day. However, the front buttoning abaya styles were clearly designed for women less busty than myself, and the buttons strained across my chest.
“If you wear a long hijab,” she informed me, “it will not show.” Nonetheless, i decided I would at least try some over the head styles before I gave in to that compromise. Some were indeed very difficult to put on, but these were mostly the fancy (and heavier weight material) “evening wear” abayas. I was quite surprised after trying several on that it became a simple matter to shrug them on and off over my clothes and hair.
I tried on at least a dozen, some were rejected outright for difficulty to put on, or ill fitting sleeves. I was amazed that such a simple garment could have such a wide variety of fits! For the ones that felt comfortable enough, I bustled back to the fitting room we weren’t bothering to use to look at myself in the mirror. All the while we chatted about my upcoming trip. I told her I was going to teach English, and she told me about her daughter who had been raised in America and wanted to return to the Arabic world to teach as well. This was a little sad, because most of the countries in the Middle East require a great deal of certification and experience to hire someone, which her daughter had not obtained yet.
Finally, we found a very light weight abaya with a very breathable fabric. It was a major relief, because just trying on some of the abayas in the shop, I was starting to sweat a little, even though Seattle heat is only in the low 80’s (that’s about 29 C), which is nothing compared to the heat I will be facing in Saudi. The abaya was a perfect fit; it didn’t even need to be hemmed, and the sleeves bore a pattern of maroon and creme with tiny crystals picking out a flower and vine pattern above. It was perfect.
Now for the hijab. This is the head covering, not to be confused with the veil/face covering which is called a niqab. She asked me what kind I wanted, and I replied I had no idea, having never purchased or worn one before. Years before, for a class in grad-school, we had to attend a Mosque and write about the experience, but I had simply used a regular scarf to cover my head that day. Using a scarf suited for Seattle in the Saudi summer was not going to work. Additionally, I hoped that there was something simple enough for me to put on correctly without having to master a complex folding, wrapping and tucking technique.
I expressed that it would be nice to have a hijab in a color that matched the accents on the sleeves of my abaya, for although the abaya must be black in Saudi, it can have colored trim, and the hijab may be colored. She found a creme colored swatch of cloth and helped me to put it on. So simple! It was a tube of cloth, wider at the shoulder end than the face end. You just push your face through like a turtleneck sweater, only instead of pulling it all the way over your head, you adjust the edge around your hairline.
I ducked back into the changing room with the mirror and tucked a few wisps of hair back under the hijab, then examined the complete picture. I was amazed at how different I looked. I could have been a completely different person, but somehow, the covering garments did not make me feel hidden or oppressed. I felt that these clothes were my cultural passport into my next adventure, affording me the ability to travel in and possibly even be accepted in the country I will call home for the next year.
I made a few final adjustments to the bottom collar of the hijab, settling it in a deep scoop across my collarbone then stepped back out into the main room smiling at my achievement. The shopkeeper immediately broke into a wide grin, “Oh!, you look so beautiful dressed this way!” she said to me. I thanked her for the compliment and all her help as she rang up my purchase. We chatted a little more about my departure date, and the upcoming Hajj, and her own dreams to make the pilgrimage some day.
As I drove home, I thought more about the compliment she had given me. It seems so difficult for me sometimes as a well-educated, liberal leaning American woman to remember that the clothes these women wear are not always prisons. Many women choose to dress in abaya and hijab, or even adding a niqab or going full burqa. Here in America, this Somalian woman surely chose her dress style, and to run a business catering to other women who do the same, for no Mutawaeen will ever find her here and shame her into covering her hair or hiding her body. Her compliment was genuine. She felt that in that moment, rather than concealing myself, I truly embodied her own cultural ideal of feminine beauty.
I am extremely glad that I decided to buy my first abaya here in Seattle from a store and not online. Not only because it turned out to be necessary to try many on before finding the right fit, but because I got to touch lives with the vivacious Somalian lady with the nut-brown skin, infectious laugh, and deep sense for the beautiful that broadened my own.