a mall of contradictions

So I was at the mall.

I’m at the mall because “everything” is at the mall: grocery stores, bookstores (or at least stores that sell book-related products), the Walgreens-equivalent stores. These malls are vast echoey spaces designed to entertain: each mall has big toddler play areas; there are ice rinks, bowling alleys, fountains galore. In Dubai, there is a mall with a huge aquarium in it, and another designed around a series of canals, ala Venice.

The malls depress me, not only because I have to drive there but also because they are filled with chain stores, usually fair-conditioned to meat-locker levels, and because they celebrate consumerism as the pinnacle of civilization. (Now, granted, malls everywhere depress me, and for the same reasons; the Gulf doesn’t have the corner on garish displays of consumer culture. Mall of America anyone?)

Unlike Mall of America, though, the malls here offer a fashion parade of abaya style. I am fascinated by abayas, which is the word used here for the long black robe worn by Muslim women. The scarf covering the face is the niqab; the scarf that covers the hair and neck is the shayla, or, sometimes, the hijaab (but, confusingly, hijaab is also the word used to mean “modest,” and is thus sometimes the word used in a blanket fashion – yes, there’s a pun there somewhere – to mean “covering”).

Abayas in their plainest form are simply long black robes that sweep the floor.  Some women take hijaab to the utmost, adding black gloves and a full face veil, so that they are completely covered. I call this look the full beekeeper.  But – and this is where it gets complicated – I see women with abayas that look like a bedazzler has run amok.  Abayas with Swarovski crystals along the shoulders and down the back, like some kind of sparkly Hells’ Angels design; abayas with Louis Vuitton trim; abayas with spangled head scarves and peacock embroidery along the hemlines – abayas, in short, that are anything but “modest.”

I can imagine that for some women, a decorated abaya is a way to both follow “the rules,” and yet also assert personality – and status, because a custom abaya can cost thousands and thousands of dollars.

Abayas seem to me an embodiment of the complexity involved in being a modern woman in conservative Muslim country, and in the malls, easily half the women are wearing abayas – frequently abayas that I think of as “performance abayas:” abayas that are meant to be seen.

Here are three women wearing fairly subtle abayas:

Relatively modest.

There is another level of complexity, though, and it involves what’s under the abaya. The malls are full of shoe stores, and the shoe stores are full of women in abayas (some modest, some blazing with bling) – shoe love, it seems, is a universal female trait that crosses all national and ethnic boundaries.  I took pictures in three different stores of the shoes on display:

and these:

or perhaps these (note matching handbag):

I swear, if a hooker went to the prom, these would be her shoes.  Hijaab these definitely ain’t.

Wearing any kind of uniform forces secret, or semi-secret expressions of self to emerge. I just find it odd that hot pink, rhinestone studded platforms would be anyone’s form of expression, other than maybe Gwen Stefani or Madonna. But if we judge by good old-fashioned capitalism, these stores are stocking what their customers are buying…so someone is trip-trapping along in sparkly gold platform sling-backs under her modest black robe.

And I’m thinking that maybe I’ve already been here for too long because you know what? I think those pastel patent leather platform sandals are kind of cute, in a Japanese school-girl anime sort of way.  Just the thing for a day at the mall.


What’s that you say? You don’t want to go to the mall, you just want to get away from it all? Here are a few suggestions from none other than The Bloggess, Scary Mommy, The Momalog, WanderMom…and me! (And hell yes, being on a list with these writers sort of made my week…maybe my month!) Click here for the article from Travel and Leisure Online, a great source for travel ideas all over the world.


And if you are at the mall and you’re waiting for your kids to stop staring at the games in Electro-Land, then you should be spending your time reading yeahwrite – some of the best writing on the interwebs.  Read around, click around, then come back on Wednesday and spread some voting love. I’m using this great silver badge this week because it goes with the shoes. You know you want a pair. Just think what the other parents will think at the Saturday morning Little League games when you stroll up in your 10 inch sparkly platforms.


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33 Responses to a mall of contradictions

  1. KSB April 23, 2012 at 3:27 am #

    Q: How does one WALK in such shoes, you know, without breaking one’s neck, or at the very least, ankle? Quite curious, everytime I see shoes like that anywhere!

    • Deborah Quinn April 23, 2012 at 2:38 pm #

      I don’t mind high heels, actually – and high-heeled boots are the best way to convey authority I’ve ever seen (think Condi Rice and you’ll see what I mean). But these – and there are more, more more, just like ’em – really take my breath away.

  2. Arnebya April 23, 2012 at 11:18 am #

    @KSB — I can walk in them (do it everyday and feel odd in flats, off kilter kinda). I’m curious about how one walks well in them if the abaya is so long. I’d be afraid to step on it, although I suppose one gets used to it.

    And secretly (well, not so much now, I suppose) I like the first pair in the dark grey/silver color (a lot!).

    • Deborah Quinn April 23, 2012 at 2:39 pm #

      It’s the combo of sky-high heels, a long robe, and then (for many women), seriously compromised lines of sight b/c they’ve got veils on. I’ve watched women going up and down the steps in movie theaters and been amazed that they’ve not done full-body rolls to the bottom. Tricky stuff. Plus..shoes like that to the grocery store, the mall, everywhere. I can’t do the sparkly metallics, but like I said, those little pastel numbers…

  3. Nancy Horwich April 23, 2012 at 4:21 pm #

    The one day I wore an abaya it felt really nice: flowy, graceful, sexy even. Of course I was barefoot so that helped with the graceful part.

    • Deborah Quinn April 24, 2012 at 9:43 am #

      barefoot is sexy…stumbling over one’s hem because you can’t see where you’re going and your shoes have set you 10 inches above the ground? not so much with the sexy.

  4. Stasha April 24, 2012 at 5:32 am #

    I am so happy to see you had a great time. Also your destination was the coolest in the article. Just saying.

  5. anna April 24, 2012 at 1:21 pm #

    now that i live in mall-central and mall-centric nj i feel i must go to them, at least with my kids occasionally so they can fit in. before the move to the garden state, i think i had avoided the mall successfully for at least a decade!

    and i do love all those shoes, at least in theory..

  6. Jackie April 24, 2012 at 2:30 pm #

    True story: About 8 years ago, I was walking through a Target in Northern NJ and out of the corner of my eye spied someone in full black abaya. The presence of someone decked out like that took my completely by surprise and my initial thought was “There’s a ninja in Target! AH!”. Upon later observation, a ninja she was not, and boy did I feel quite ethnocentric!
    All those shoes are hideous in my humble opinion. All I’m thinking “Porn star on the feet, Mother Teresa on the top”.

  7. Ado April 24, 2012 at 5:02 pm #

    Ha ha ha – those hooker shoes beneath the hijab, “Hijab, these definitely aren’t!”
    My husband and I had that experience when we were in the Gulf – seeing women behind the scenes under their Hijabs – holy smokes, what fashionistas! They didn’t have Lulemon yoga pants and t-shirts on under ’em like I would!

  8. stephanie April 24, 2012 at 5:43 pm #

    Fascinating when you think about it. I can imagine them wearing nothing but those shoes under those robes. I couldn’t so much as stand up in those heels, much less take a few steps. Crazy in any country. Sometimes I see young girls walking around my small CA town and I want to wrap them up in an abaya. Nothing is left to the imagination.

  9. Mel April 24, 2012 at 7:55 pm #

    Great post! I always admire those women that can pull those types of shoes off flawlessly. They walk like they are in tennis shoes, while I would be crippled on the floor in 2 steps.

  10. Mayor Gia April 24, 2012 at 8:51 pm #

    Those shoes are cute, but I have weird duck feet and could never wear them 🙁

  11. jamie April 25, 2012 at 12:05 am #

    I think they are battling with the fashionista in their soul…

  12. Sandra April 25, 2012 at 3:32 am #

    Great post – loved the photos. Those shoes! I used to wear shoes like that the last time platform soles were around. And stilettos. Now I wear flat sandals and trainers/boots with orthotic insoles. Every time I see ‘la Beckham’ it makes my poor feet cringe – she doesn’t know what she’s got coming.

  13. Kim@MamaMzungu April 25, 2012 at 6:51 am #

    This reminds me of the insight the worst movie of our generation (Sex in the City 2) was trying and failing to make (if I’m being generous to the writers). I guess our obsession with beauty cannot be quieted with a full length hijab and I think it’s remarkable that those who can afford to find a way make a statement. Not sure whether to cheer “good for you” or to lament that consumerism and beauty obsession has crept in.

    Anyway… I also hate malls, but have been living in a place without them for a few years and I found myself getting way too jealous at your description in the first paragraph. Skating rinks? Bowling alleys?? Yes please!!!!

    And congrats on the Travel and Leisure article! I saw you in thre earlier this week and thought it was well deserved. I always enjoy your post!!

    • Deborah Quinn April 26, 2012 at 6:23 am #

      The abaya really does fascinate me, in part because of what you describe – the cultural signifiers, the challenges to that cultural signifier, back and forth – the desire for personal expression (the shoes! the bag! the trim on the robe and scarf!) and yet…completely swathed in black (in the HEAT, let’s remember that too, shall we? When it’s 120F and 90% humidity, a full length black body robe would not be my wardrobe choice..) The malls here dont bear dreaming about – they have “entertainment,” I guess, yes, but then they’re mostly filled with rhinestones and electronics. It’s weird. These vast palaces of consumerism and NOTHING I want to buy.

  14. Christie April 25, 2012 at 7:40 am #

    How does one walk in shoes like that?!?! I love how you captured the juxtaposition of traditional customs within contemporary western culture.

  15. Sisterhood of the Sensible Moms April 25, 2012 at 9:34 am #

    The dichotomy of it all kills me and one of my first thoughts was, if I got to wear a black robe I would be in my pajamas and slippers. But you know why I thought that? Because I have my freedom and the right to express myself and I have nothing to assert. Giving a little thank you for my freedom right now.

    BTW, you killed with this line: “I think those pastel patent leather platform sandals are kind of cute, in a Japanese school-girl anime sort of way.” BWAHAHA! Ellen

    • Deborah Quinn April 26, 2012 at 6:20 am #

      So true…some women here say that the abaya is great b/c you can just toss it on and be ready to go, which is great, if for you the abaya is optional. If it’s not…? then it’s hard to walk, hard to keep it all together when you’re walking outside in the wind, the whole thing seems designed to impinge on personal freedom. But then of course, I say that and realize that I have to keep my Western goggles off, or at least slid down my nose a bit, so that I can try to see the other perspectives…

  16. hollow tree ventures April 25, 2012 at 12:49 pm #

    Well, I never would’ve guessed in a million years! I second Ellen, above, on all counts – I was thinking sweats and slippers too, but probably because I already can wear whatever I want.

  17. Alison@Mama Wants This April 25, 2012 at 9:01 pm #

    Many Middle Eastern tourists shop in Malaysia during summer time (the ‘Great Malaysian Mega Sale’ must be an event on their calendar) and I’ve seen abaya-clad ladies shopping in TopShop (the great British high street store celebrating skinny jeans, mini dresses and the like). And it makes me wonder all the time what’s underneath that robe. In a non-perverse way of course.

    So those studded shoes? Do not surprise me. 🙂

  18. Kristin April 25, 2012 at 11:06 pm #

    I really want those last shoes. I couldn’t walk in them, but I could gaze at them. They are gorgeous! I guess it’s kind of like someone wearing a pretty bra or panties or an ankle bracelet or tattoo that no one – or few people – will see. It’s expressing yourself for yourself – and a few close friends. I love it!

    Malls, not so much. I have managed to go to malls only a handful of times since living in NJ. Ahhhhh.

  19. Your Doctor's Wife April 25, 2012 at 11:46 pm #

    I can’t imagine putting together a fantastic ensemble just to cover it up!

    • Deborah Quinn April 26, 2012 at 6:19 am #

      I think as Kristin says, it’s a bit like buying fancy underwear. No one necessarily is going to see it, but YOU know it’s there. Of course, that’s why I don’t bother to buy fancy underwear but hey, to each her own, I guess…

  20. Janice April 26, 2012 at 3:09 am #

    I’ve always wondered what it was like in the malls there. I live in CA where the malls are puny and bare compared to the multileveled mall buipdings in the Philippines where I came from!

    You were right in saying that the stores will feature and sell what consumers demand. Interesting. Very interesting, indeed.

    • Deborah Quinn April 26, 2012 at 6:16 am #

      Funny, I always think of CA as the land of the mall – the Beverly Center in LA, all those sprawling boxes in the Valley – but then again, compared to out here, those are like starter-kit malls. Truly, this is the region of the mall as palace. And the shoes, the glitter, the bling…it’s EVERYWHERE. There’s high-end glitter and low-end glitter, but it’s everywhere, to the point that trying to find a plain white t-shirt is like the proverbial needle in the haystack!

  21. Deborah Quinn April 26, 2012 at 6:17 am #

    exactly – I’ve heard that Emirati coffee parties, where the ladies gather together without men, are seriously fashionista competitions. Women get done to the nines, just for a late morning tea party. So it is a sort of woman-to-woman thing…and also, I guess, when you’re someone with a lot of disposable income and not much else to do (not a lot of women work here, within the Emerati circles), what else is there to do but…shop. And dress. And shop some more. It’s a bit sad, when you get right down to it.

  22. Just Jennifer April 26, 2012 at 3:33 pm #

    So interesting! Would you ever wear an abaya?

    • Deborah Quinn May 1, 2012 at 9:12 am #

      You know, I actually want to buy an abaya and veil so that I can walk around and see if I’m treated differently (if I’m covered enough, I figure, then no one will know I’m American – as long as I don’t open my mouth!) – but I mentioned this idea to one of my kids and he said “but they’ll think you’re mocking them…” and so I wonder. I mean, I’m not, at all, I’m just really really curious. Hmm…

  23. heidi April 26, 2012 at 7:44 pm #

    Fascinating! Good friends of our lived in Abu Dhabi for a year and found it hard, the way women had to cover up and men didn’t. I kinda love that they have found a way to liven up their attire. And those shoes?! Wow.

  24. Kimberly S. (Sperk*) April 26, 2012 at 10:28 pm #

    This post has me really thinking. (Uh, oh…alert the media…..she’s thinking….hopefully we won’t get the play-by-play of the thoughts streaming through that brain of hers) And…let me see if I can articulate this one….OK…they wear clothes that cover because they are female–to hide their sexuality, gender…no they aren’t hiding gender, they are hiding sexuality. But underneath veils of shame they are wearing….or being sold/marketed….stripper shoes. So, it’s like the western stereotype, or line of thinking….”I want to marry the girl next door, but ‘do’ the hooker.” Or is it marry the girl next door who does it like a hooker? I already put my academic hat away….articulate this one for me? Am I making any sense?

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