A few day ago an aunt of mine sent this video to the family whatsapp group praising Mayassa's eloquence, form and education. The details of the speech, as in every Arab exchange, were of course irrelevant. "Look where they are now and look at us, khalfallah 3alaina." I, on the other hand actually watched the video and found myself very angry at one part of her speech. Don't get me wrong, this girl, through the willingness of Qatar to develop, has managed to undertake enormous projects and has had inspiring results in changing the cultural landscape of Qatar and giving Qataries the opportunities to think, learn and create. She's done a lot of good for her country and is seen as an example, which is why the beginning of her video bugged me so much. She speaks about her abaya.
Firstly, kudos to her for stating that it is an example of cultural expression and not a religious garment. Mayassa then goes on to recount a story where a journailist asked Dr. Shaikha the president of Qatar University whether the abaya "infringed or hindered her freedom in any way.
Her answer was quite the contrary. She felt more free, more free because she could wear anything she wanted under the abaya." True, she can wear anything she wants UNDER the abaya, but she has to WEAR the abaya itself. However much she mentioned that it is a "choice" I don't see a choice where there is no freedom to choose and freedom from enormous negative consequences. She mentioned that it is just like the Indian girl choosing to wear a sari. Okay cultural point taken, but the Indian woman is not going to wear a sari for volleyball practice. She will wear volleyball shorts. In front of a male and female audience. I doubt Ms.Abaya-Qatar's abaya is gone be as disposable and symbolic.
The problem I have with all these newfangled attempts to explain why the retention of the abaya is a retention of our Arab tradition and maintaining that tradition while we move into a modern age is the fact that NO ONE questions the position of the abaya as a PART of our tradition moving forward. It is a given. Yes we are Arab... we abaya. End of story. No one asks the question SHOULD the abaya be a part of our future and why? Is it just a look or does it reflect certain specific cultural values? Are these values compatible with our idea of modern woman and a modern, healthy society?
Lets get back to basics: what is the abaya? A abaya is a usually silk (differs according to locale), black outer shell garment worn on top of clothing in Gulf countries. The original abaya is tent-like, large and plain. The abaya is not worn at home but placed on top of clothing when a woman goes into the public arena. Why would a woman need another garment to wear in public that she does not need to wear (even though fully clothed) in private? Why? Because our Gulf Arab tradition places a stigma on a women moving out of her little private sphere (where she BELONGS) into the public. She needs a shield, armour, a cloak of anonymity that would serve to merge her identity with countless others, and to hinder the dangerous and potentially licentious task of marking the single identity of a woman outside the safety of her private family domain. A woman needs to hide. Like she hides behind her (traditionally Arab) windowless house walls, sealed off from public life. Like she hides her hair and feminine charms from non-make relatives. Like she hides her opinions on her mother in law and husband and remains obedient. Like she hides her frustration at the restrictions in her life out of "respect" for tradition. If you want to talk about women and tradition, women in our tradition HIDE. They need protection, they need a wall between them and public life. Because public life is traditionally male.
Why did Fatima Hussein and Lulwa Al Qatami burn their abayas in the optimistic early days of modernization and why did almost the entire female population of Kuwait wear abayas during the invasion? Why is the abaya worn in all-female funerals and not for all-female weddings? Think about it. Fatma Hussain and Lulwa al Qatami were protesting carrying the anonymous woman into the modern age. They had traveled, they had learned, they were intelligent accomplished individuals. They wanted to look like individuals. They did not want a cloak of anonymity smothering their accomplishments. They wanted to live in an open, accountable society where they could not and didn't have to hide. They wanted to wear colour, practical clothing, different fabrics, different cuts, to feel linear one day and curvaceous the next. They wanted to pick their stockings, their suits, their shirts, their accessories with pride, to arrange their hair in a manner that suited their fancy, to feel the spring breeze on their arms with a shift dress and their legs with a pencil skirt. They desired the freedom to BE. To live in colour and texture and cut, They desired the freedom to enjoy a summer afternoon with their friends and family on the beach, to feel the sun on their skin and swim without the weight of fabrics. They desired to wear practical shorts while playing sports, they desired the freedom to be impressive (and to create impressions) at a dinner party. They desired some kind of return of innocence and dignity to their bodies, which were burdened since puberty with the assumption of sin and malicious intent.
Women during the Kuwaiti invasion turned to the abaya to become anonymous, to hide their identity from the enemy. It was a mark of solidarity; a statement "We are all the same, we are not open to you (the enemy) and we are all in mourning." It enabled them to carry out secret operations undetected, it enabled them to carry weapons and letters and symbolize their rejection of the invaders eyes and inquiries. During a funeral the abaya is a symbol that we are all the same in death and that is symbolized in the anonymity of our dress. A abaya is a garment which is VERY VERY VERY heavily loaded with negative cultural baggage (except in the case of the 'aza or funeral). WHY would a modern woman want to retain that? What if, Mayassa, I dont want to wear a pyjama under my abaya? What if I want to be singled out?
The common refrain: "we don't want to just copy the West. We take pride in our own culture." It pains me deeply to see 150 years of our Western feminist counterparts' intense and life-altering struggles thrown out the window without a second glance with some sugarcoated line about this horrid black garment being a part of our "identity." You know what IS a part of my identity?? ME! ME! I am my identity. And I don't appreciate this shroud of misery being thrown on top of me, telling me I need to conform, that my body is wrong, that i need to HIDE. You know what we owe Western feminists? We owe them ideas about modernization that filtered down to us in the 60s! We owe them the Egyptian writers! We owe them the Lebanese poetesses! We owe them our modern curriculums, we owe them the acceptability of the woman in the workplace, we owe them the stigma placed on judging a woman by the length of her skirt, we owe them Palestinian missionary teachers, we owe them A LOT!! A LOT! What they struggled to achieve was parity with the male. equality in public AND private life. They struggled for women to retain their integrity in the public imagination while living their lives and expressing themselves as they liked through dress, manner, influence, opinion, interest and sexual expression. THEY STRUGGLED FOR FEMALE DIGNITY. They struggled to be able to say "I am a woman in a skirt and I am your boss" "I wear a miniskirt because my legs are not shameful" "I can travel and mix with men and express my natural impulses without being a slut, a whore, a shame. I made a decision and it was MINE to make and there is no shame in it" We don't have to be "Western" to agree that the struggle for equality WAS A CHANGE FOR THEM TOO. They took the shackles their society had on a woman and to a large degree, smashed them to hell. They said we can act, think and do as we please as long as we don't harm anyone without having a stain on our characters. Our bodies are not a source of your honour, our minds are not arenas for you to control. We are free to live and innocent of shame. INNOCENT OF SHAME.OPEN. HONEST. HIDE NOTHING. I want to cry when I say that because it is a concept so unbelievably foreign in our societies that I don't even know where to start.
Today we have all these Gulf-based "luxury" fashion brands selling 3000 dollar abayas claiming they are refashioning this tradition for the modern age. Hawking them to the press, Arab branding 2.0! Put it on Olivia Palermo! What tradition? You mean the need to hide, the funereal black and the baggage of misogyny and years of oppression? Trendy! Fashion! Fabulous darling!! These brands are only reinforcing the abaya's place in our society, deluding young girls that maybe we should hold on to it as a bulwark against the homogenizing waves of modernization. We have more than that! Our identities are more than such superficiality! I have way more in common with my Arab sisters, believe me Mayassa, than black silk!! My identity is UNDER the abaya. In my body, in my mind, in my clothes. My differences are under the abaya. And I want to show the world! Beauty is good! Opinions are good! Honesty is good! It improves the spirit!
THINK about the things you want to carry into the future because our past is dark and oppressive. Don't let the happy stories blind you to the reality that our grandmothers and even mothers used to live. We have come a long way and need to go a long way yet. Using old symbols like the abaya create assumptions and cancerous ideas about what women should look like and how they should be restricted that may sabotage our efforts at progress.
I wished Mayassa wouldn't have opened and closed the topic in 30 seconds. She didn't even acknowledge the idea that maybe we should question this garment's place in our society. Maybe, it one of those traditions which needs to die like the stigma against female education, or honour killings. Maybe it needs to die for us to leave richer lives, more nuanced, more vividly coloured, and more filled with inspiring variety. Show off those curves they make my day! Show off your legs they're beautiful, wear your favourite bikini on an Italian beach and feel the sun, the sand, the water! There's nothing wrong with it. Be happy to be alive! You make other people happy just looking at you! Your face is beautiful, your hair is beautiful, your mind is beautiful, your expressions are beautiful, your wrists are beautiful, your arms are beautiful, your body is beautiful and you look fantastic in that pink dress! And never allow anyone to make you think you are less because this is WHO YOU ARE. ALL of you. You are your brain, your experiences and your body!! No more hiding. Those days are dead.