The standard reaction of all those who heard that we were shifting to Dubai was, "Wow, that's a beautiful place, and so much more civilized. Now you need not wear an abaya." Whether it was my teenage daughter, other family members, my friends, and even their husbands, the response was universal. Dubai in their eyes meant freedom from the abaya.
That got me thinking. Was the abaya such an evil garb that those who wore it were considered "uncivilized"? Was it something that hindered one's freedom? Was it something you could not associate with the woman of today?
The garment worn compulsorily during my years in Saudi Arabia had found a permanent place in my wardrobe as I realized, on careful deliberation, that the benefits far outweighed its limitations. Of course, to be honest I now made a few changes. Hitherto it was only a black scarf but now I indulged in the luxury of a colored one. No, not a flamboyant pink or a startling yellow, not a shocking electric blue or a screeching green, but a safe, sedate, respectable maroon. It wouldn't be fair if I don't mention the ostentatious, crystal studded abayas I keep for special occasions.
On second thoughts, as I write this, I speculate on my decision. Why do I wear the abaya at all? Do I wear the abaya because my religion demands that I cover myself modestly from head to toe or simply to assert my "Muslim" identity? Do I wear it because of the convenience attached? It can be a lifesaver at times when I don't want to change out of my home clothes. Ironing bills too have reduced considerably! Do I wear the abaya because I think it is the sexiest outfit ever created?
The mystique of a veiled woman has for years fascinated man. The lure of the unknown, forever compelling. This humble garment in black can at times be more provocative than any skimpy outfit, its demureness, more exotic!
Rewind to a conversation my daughter, was having with a friend.
"My mom's here for a few days before shifting to Dubai. She's coming to pick me up from college tomorrow so you can meet her then. But listen, don't mind, my mother wears an abaya. Yeah, yeah, the black cloak, right."
Disbelief crept up my spine. Now why should my daughter's friend "mind" what I was wearing and why should she be forewarned? As if I wear the Scarlet Letter "A" pinned onto my chest and back! Blurred memories of postgraduate days, courtesy Nathaniel Hawthorne, clouded my vision as I stood aghast.
Well, that remark shouldn't have come as a surprise. My daughter, who at that time was pursuing her degree from a college for "progressive young women" in New Delhi, breathes, eats, and lives words like enterprising, independence, confidence, emancipation, liberalism, gender-equality, etc., and the word "veil" obviously has no place in her vocabulary. Her college advocates the view that women are a self-reliant species and nothing can prevent them from surging ahead of men. Now, in this scenario, do you think black-cloak-covered me could actually have dared to consider entering the portals of that hallowed institution?
I then wondered ... Is my daughter right when she calls me a hypocrite? Is she justified in accusing me of turning my abaya into a style statement? Am I abusing the sanctity of this garment as I strut around in my splendiferous, trendy abayas that tend to attract rather than cover, and so defeat the very purpose they were created for? (Charles Darwin would certainly have been confused at the "evolution" of this garment!)
How many others are there who, like me, are confused about the abaya? What exactly does this garment represent to women of the sub-continent around the world?
And what then is the correct Hijab of a Muslim woman? Why should she wear it and how should she wear it?
"O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks (Jilbab) all over their bodies. That will be better, that they should be known (as free respectable women) so as not to be annoyed. And Allah is Ever Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful" [Noble Quran 33:59]
The reason for women to cover is clearly stated here by Allah, the Almighty as a form of protection.
"Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and be modest. That is purer for them. Lo! Allah is aware of what they do. And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their chests, and not to reveal their adornment ... And turn unto Allah altogether, O you Believers, in order that you may attain success." [Noble Quran 24:30,31]
When stated so specifically in the Holy Book, why has the matter of covering become a "choice" for Muslim women the world over, who, otherwise strictly follow the fundamental pillars of Islam? Have we been correct in interpreting what Allah meant when he asked of women to dress modestly? And the onus of being modest is not on the woman alone. Men too, as mentioned in the Quran, have been instructed to practice modesty, which also refers to a manner of conducting oneself.
Why is the abaya today not only 'the most misunderstood' but also "the most debated piece of cloth"?
Why is the whole issue of the abaya and head scarf being blown out of proportion by governments of various nations for political gains.
The mandatory "covering" mentioned in the Holy Quran could then be interpreted to mean a "chador" like garment, or any other loose dress worn over one's regular clothing, not necessarily the black abaya of today.
Does wearing an abaya make one "holier-than-thou," or is it more important to dress modestly and better oneself to attain eternal bliss. And then rises the issue of what is "modest." My criteria of "modesty" may be far removed from someone else's. Again, what is accepted as normal in one society may cause raised eyebrows in another.
And so continues the debate.
The abaya can then be looked upon as a great outfit if worn to please Allah and a troublesome one if worn due to pressures of family and society. Personally, I see no end to this discussion.
My head spins as confusion prevails.
To be or not to be veiled -- the dilemma continues!
A longer version of this article appeared in The International Indian (Vol 17.2, April 2010), a Dubai-based publication.This piece was written when the author was residing in Dubai. She has now moved back to India and has discontinued wearing the abaya.