Abayas

Here’s where you get your abaya when you visit Abu Dhabi’s Grand Mosque:


No, there are no shoes available here, just black full-length robes for all female visitors not already wearing a robe, and white full-length robes for male visitors wearing shorts.

And here’s what you look like when you put on your black robe and veil:


When Muslim women wear the full abaya, with head scarf and face veil, they look to me like beekeepers in mourning. Me? I just looked like a white girl in a black bathrobe.

As I swished from the outer patios of the Grand Mosque into the inner courtyard, I imagined that wearing this robe would render me anonymous—just another devout Muslim woman.  But of course, peeking out from the black veil is my round Midwestern face–and no amount of Manhattan living, or black veiling, can disguise that, alas.

When I first put the headscarf on, Liam chided me for doing it wrong. I ignored him, of course. What ten year old boy knows anything about scarves?  And then just before I entered the mosque itself, the very nice young woman guard standing in the doorway pulled me aside. With a quick pinch of fabric in the back, a flick of the wrist, and a deft tuck or two, she had the veil adjusted: covering all of my hair in the back and snugly wrapped so that it wouldn’t slide around while I walked.

Liam, of course, was delighted to be corroborated in his sartorial judgments.

Wandering around the mosque in my black abaya, I wondered what it would be like to wear a robe all the time. It would certainly solve the whole muffin-top problem—there’s no waist-band in a robe and thus nothing for a tummy to spill over.  What happens to the concept of “sex appeal” in countries where women wear the abaya? Is it all about the eyes and the pedicure? The voice? Or are there codes and silent signals, the way there were when women carried fans all the time—fanning fast meant one thing, fanning slowly something else.

What would it be like to have your body not be available for scrutiny from anyone passing you on the sidewalk? To not catch a glimpse of a jiggly upper arm as you walk by a shop window and sort of wince? Would it make you feel more powerful or less powerful, do you suppose, to have your body just…not part of the equation of daily life, at least in public?

Considering questions of female empowerment was not, perhaps, the most mosque-appropriate line of thought, especially given that I was in the main prayer room—which is to say the men’s prayer room—while I contemplated the position of Muslim women in their society. (There are two ladies’ prayer rooms, each of which holds about 1500 people, adjoining the main prayer room, which itself holds about 9000.)  The main prayer room also, in fitting tribute to the “can you top this” spirit of the UAE, boasts the largest carpet in the world:


Of course, the other thing I kept thinking about, as I walked around with the boys, marveling at the intricate carvings and delicate details, is the Tea Bag Head kerfuffle a few months ago about the building of a Muslim community center in downtown Manhattan, near Ground Zero.  While there will be a worship space in that planned facility, it has about as much relation to “mosque” as a YMCA has to St. John’s Cathedral.

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3 Responses to Abayas

  1. Ann November 30, 2010 at 12:08 pm #

    I think it’s as important to consider how you feel inside the abaya as how others see you. Can you run? Can you even move freely? Yes, it’d hide the wobbly stuff, but it also limits your freedom and your power — your literal, physical power. We had an exchange student from Jordan at our college who, above everything else about the west, loved that she could go running. To give that up . . . I dunno. I think it’d suck.

  2. Tonya November 30, 2010 at 3:54 pm #

    I’ve been there!!! It’s a very beautiful place. Imam Mohammad Shamsi Ali is a very wonderful man and all of the members there were so welcoming!
    I guess you weren’t able to walk around outside of the Center? I was just wondering how other people on the street would have treated you?

  3. Suzie November 30, 2010 at 10:52 pm #

    The image of you in the abaya is freaky. Maybe not the best word, but you are such a strong, smart, unique, beautiful woman, seeing you in that makes you look to me like every other woman in a black abaya, who I’m guessing is unique and quite possibly all, or some, of those other things too.

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