The Abaya and Women's Rights

Walk the streets of New York, LA, Paris, Amsterdam, London, Bangkok, or any non homogenous city and you'll more than likely run into a Muslim woman covered up in some capacity. In many of these cities, especially in America, they are looked on with prejudice. Is she oppressed? Is she part of a terrorist network? So sad that she has to cover up all the time. A little while ago I watched a TEDtalk by Sam Harris. It opened my mind. I began to wonder what if all of this pity we are taught to have of these women are misconstrued? What if these women are really happy as they are, that THEY chose to not abide by other cultures and stay strong to what makes them feel feminine and wonderful? Are WE the ones carrying the prejudice in the form of pity? Are WE segregating these women because they are not like us? How can we label them without really fully understanding them, in their context, in their homes?

I sat next to a French-Algerian woman at a traditional Emerati breakfast at the Dubai center for cultural understanding. The goal of the breakfast was to have an open discussion about anything cultural. It's geared to facilitate people from all walks of life to have a better understanding of each other's cultures in a warm and friendly atmosphere. The French-Algerian woman was wearing an Abaya - the black cover ups you see almost all women of Middle Eastern descent wear. She said she spent the first 30 years not wearing one. Then she got tired of the physical judgements people pass on just by looking at her. She said, "you are judged by what you wear in any culture. I don't want to be judged. In the abaya, I feel free. I feel anonymous. No one knows if I am rich or poor. I am seen as a person. Not as a person with possession." Then she told the story of how you are not allowed to work if you wear an Abaya in France. I suppose one will always be judged no matter what. It is the causality of the judgement that matters. Why do we think it's ok for the Japanese school girls in Harajuku to come out dressed like gothic sluts every Sunday just to be seen? Why do we think it's not ok for a woman to walk around in all black all the time to not be seen?

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I wore an Abaya that morning at the breakfast. Full on with the face mask and everything. There is no rule for women in the UAE to wear the garment. I was told it's not in the Koran to wear an abaya. Not exactly sure if this is true - I think there is something in the Koran that speaks to a woman's body. Women, like men, can marry as many people as they want. There are separate subway cars for women - and it's nicer than men's. The "family" section of a more traditional restaurants are nicer than the common dining rooms. I really like the family section idea. I was in one at a Yemeni restaurant the day before. It's more intimate, bigger, and your crazy monkeys can run around or cry all they want. They should have family sections in Park Slope restaurants. God knows it'll make brunch so much more pleasant for the rest of us.

Looking at UAE's history, tho it wasn't explicitly annotated, women weren't really present in the work force until much later. Women were also not present in schools. All women were allowed to learn was the Koran. Tho they are treated as equal in the man's eyes, they are seen as someone who takes on a complimentary role. It's an interesting concept -- segregation due to perception of gender-biased role in society that's not demeaning, but rather complimentary in nature. Definitely not a concept a good old American can easily grasp given the massively different historical exploitations of mostly racial prejudices. This segregation is more cultural than it is religious. This segregation is non linear. It isn't that a man is better than a woman. If anything it is done so that women can get the better end of the social infrastructures. At least that's what I gather from being here and seeing how things work.

Not everyone in UAE wears an abaya. Most people in Dubai don't. You can wear above the knee skirts and tanks. People just don't do it here. It's looked down upon as impolite. This is the same in Bangkok. The abaya is super light weight. It feels nice. A lot of women would wear ridiculously scantily clad outfits underneath. It makes them feel sexy, mysterious. They take the abaya off at home or in private places. In the salon where I got a Hamman, there were lots of local women chatting away, wearing all sorts of blings, doing their women things. The abaya is also a sun, wind, and sand shield. It works quite well. As for why black? And why not have rainbow colored abayas? I don't know. I think it's deep rooted in the desire for uniformness, anonymity, and may be even laziness. Wear your Jammies underneath and no one can tell.

As for the whole oppression bit ... Well, if what she wears is her choice. If she has options. Then I don't know what part is oppressive. If she's getting beat up at home by her husband, well that exists in America too.. and every culture for that matter. If she's rid of her rights to basic necessities because of religion, then I don't think you'll see this many happy women walking around in a very religious Islamic country. I - a woman - wouldn't have gotten so much kindness from all sorts of strangers on this trip if there is true gender inequality.

I won't tell you what to think the next time you see a woman in full black. For me, I celebrate her. Especially the ones not in Middle East. I celebrate her strength to stay true to her values. Social equality doesn't need to follow a single path. What I don't celebrate is prejudice from the western world. What do you think would happen if I wear a head piece on my flight back to JFK? I will do it as an experiment.

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