Ejo #12 – Emirati National Dress: The Dishdash and The Abaya explained

I’m lucky enough to work with an Emirati who is extremely open and more than happy to answer pretty well any question about his country, culture and religion.  His name is Omran and over the last six months I’ve discussed many, many interesting things with him.  I’d really like to share some of what I’ve learnt with you.  Let me tell you about the national dress of Emirati men and women.  I’ll start with the men as there’s a lot less controversy about what they wear.

 

Arab men wear an ankle length, dress-like tunic (usually with long sleeves) which is called a khandoura.  It is also known as a dishdash which is a much cuter name, I think.  Contrary to popular belief the dishdash is not required to be worn by men for any religious reason.  It is more a traditional outfit of the region, which has been adopted because of its versatility in the desert climate.  It protects the wearer’s skin from direct sunlight while providing very good ventilation under the ‘skirt’.  And of course the white fabric reflects sunlight, keeping the wearer cooler.

 

But white wasn’t always the traditional colour of the khandoura.  Apparently in the olden days the dishdash used to be a more sandy coloured fabric – for rather obvious reasons.  Now that every household has easy access to dry cleaners and can buy bleach at the local supermarket, it has evolved into a very brilliant white outfit.  I am constantly amazed by how bright and clean their whites are.  I know for sure that if I wore a dishdash, it would have coffee stains on it before I even left the house in the morning.

 

It’s not actually decreed anywhere what colour a dishdash is supposed to be so you often see younger guys being a bit more adventurous.  I’ve seen navy and I’ve seen a kind of pale green.  And I’ve seen several shades of brown, from light cream to dark chocolate and even black (which looks rather smart in my opinion).  So while there is variety, I am yet to see anything too crazy or out there.  No pinks or purples, but they do apparently exist.  I’m also pretty sure that Burberry do a dishdash in their signature check.  I sure would love to see that.

 

Another way the Emirati dudes express themselves sartorially is with the headscarf, which is part of their traditional outfit.  You do occasionally see an Arab guy in a dishdash without the headscarf (known as a ghoutra – no it’s not a tea towel, though, yes, they do sometimes resemble kitchen linens), but more often than not they are worn together.  The black coil holding the ghoutra onto their heads is called an igal, and it’s sole purpose is to hold the scarf in place.

 

The ghoutra, you may have noticed, comes in a range of different colours and styles.  All Arabs can wear the white ghoutra (it’s kind of like wearing blue jeans, it’s a staple but it doesn’t really say anything about you).  But each country in the area also has their very own special check pattern in addition to that.  This can be compared to the Scottish clans each having their own tartan check.  It identifies the wearer as belonging to a certain tribe or place.  The Palestinian national check is a large black and white pattern (as worn by the late Yasser Arafat).  The UAE national ghoutra is a small-sized, red and white check.  Actually you’ve probably seen it.  It seemed to gain prominence last year worn as a scarf around the necks of pretty young things around the world.  I’m pretty sure I saw a picture of Elle Macpherson wearing one once.

 

In addition to the pattern on the ghoutra it may also be worn in several different styles depending on how the wearer feels that day or what image he wants to project.  He can just wear it flat across the head or he may pull one side of it over the top of his head, or even twist it at the back kind of like a loose, long braid.  And when he’s feeling sporty he can wrap it around his head, bedouin style, with all the loose ends tucked in.

 

A few people from back home have expressed interest in what is worn underneath the dishdash.  To be honest, I haven’t actually discussed this with Omran, though I’m pretty sure he’d be more than happy to chat to me about it.  Anyway, from my own observations it would appear that, at the very least, they wear a t-shirt or singlet (‘wifebeater’ for my American friends).  I’m pretty sure the dishdash has some kind of  extra fabric around the nether regions (kind of like a skirt) but as for whether or not they wear underpants, this has not been so easy to determine from my casual and furtive glances.  If I had to say I would probably guess that they go commando.  Which is an interesting though when you consider what would happen should a young man wearing a dishdash become unexpectedly aroused (as young men are wont to do).  I’ve never seen it happen so perhaps there is some form of undergarment being worn.  Who knows??  It’s fun to think about anyway.

 

OK, so onto the women.  As opposed to the men, who are wearing the dishdash because of where they’re from, the women wear their national dress because of the religion they believe in.  They are required by the Qur’an to cover up with a loose cloth (in the Middle East, this covering is known as an abaya, and the headscarf is known as a shela).  According to the good book, women are required to hide their ‘ornaments’ in public.  ‘Ornaments’ has been interpreted to mean a woman’s body and hair which is why they cover them up.  Unfortunately, the more extreme Muslims of the world have a tendency to take what the Qur’an says and then try to amplify it in the belief that Allah will think they are better Muslims.  In this case they have decreed that a woman’s ‘ornaments’ means the entire woman, thus forcing her to also cover her face and hands.  From what little I know, this is not actually correct in the eyes of Islam but it is what is sensationally distributed around the world, leading to misinformation.

 

Another misconception is that women are forced to wear the abaya in order to prevent Muslim men from being overcome with passion.  This is bollocks.  First of all (in Dubai at least), Muslim men are exposed to women’s body bits every day as most of the women here are expats.  Secondly, no-one forces the women to wear the abaya (again, I speak only for Dubai).  They are actually proud to wear it.  This is worth repeating (and I’m not exaggerating it or making it up).  They are proud to wear the abaya.  I’m telling you, if you saw a group of young Emirati women in the mall walk past you, their black robes swishing around them, you could only describe them as regal.  It actually gives them a power – because only they know what is underneath the robe.  And it’s not a power that only the observer imagines.  You can see that they are more than aware of it themselves.  It was wonderful to realise this when I first came here, because just like everyone else, I assumed that they were being oppressed by having to wear it.  Not so.

 

Plus, in recent years, particularly with younger women, it has become quite the fashion to decorate the abaya with all manner of shiny things – like sequins, glittery thread and even Swarovski crystals.  Funny how the garment that they are wearing to hide their ornaments is now covered in them.  But they are pretty, and it is big business.  Even the major designers are jumping on the bandwagon and designing the black robes.  Christian Dior, Chanel, Gucci.  They all make abayas and charge up to 30,000dhs for them (that’s about AUD$10,000).  So tell me, if you’re wearing a Dolce & Gabbana abaya, are you really being oppressed???

 

The original purpose of the abaya is to protect a woman’s modesty – I suppose this could be interpreted as meaning it is required in order to prevent a man’s uncontrollable lust???  I don’t know.  What I do know is that, according to Islam, only her husband has the right to see a woman’s body.  Perhaps I’m romanticising it but I think that’s kind of cool.  I certainly know that some days I would love to have the option of wrapping an abaya around myself and stepping out in the world with no-one being able to see what I’m wearing underneath.  Admittedly those are either ‘fat’ days when my jeans are a bit tight and I just want to go out in tracksuit pants, or when everything else I own is in the wash.

 

OK, that’s it for now.  I had a funny story to tell you (unrelated to dishdashes and abayas) but this has turned into quite a long ejo so I’ll save it for the next one.  I’m sure by then I’ll have more than just one funny story to tell.  I promise, promise, promise not to take three months before I write to you again.

21 comments

  1. many thanks for all these answers! I was watching people yesterday during the fontains show yesterday and wondering the meaning of this white dress and also what is worn underneath the dishdash…;-))

    Anouk (fresh new resident in dubai)

    1. Hi Anouk, I’m so happy that my ejo could answer some of your questions. I’m sure you’ll have more as time goes on – feel free to contact me anytime if you do. Enjoy living in Dubai, it is a weird (but wonderful) place.

  2. I asked my favorite Emirati man what is under a khandora! Just a light cloth wrapped and tied around the waist. Nothing else! Yes, very exciting to muse on! (and it does keep everything down that needs to be kept modest, even when surprises happen).

    1. Hi Sarah, gee, I’m glad you asked!!! Thanks for sharing the info – now I don’t have to wonder about it every time I see a man wearing a dishdash!

  3. Loved ur article…it portrays us Muslim women in such a positive light. As for what a man wears under the dishdash/khandoura/thawb, they wear clamdiggers or board shorts…Jazaakumullah for the article once again.

    1. Hi Ayesha, thanks so much for your great feedback (and information!!). If I’ve been able to enlighten anybody about this topic then that makes me pretty happy. Thanks for reading.

  4. I loved your article! However, there’s an error when you say “They are required by the Qur’an to wear a black robe known as an abaya, and a black headscarf known as a shela. ”

    Quran merely mentions for women to cover their modesty with a loose cloth, color (or perhaps even the name abaya) is not mentioned =]

    1. Hi Sarah, you are quite right (and thank you for bringing this to my attention). To be honest I wrote this entry a couple of years ago and I have learned a great deal more about it since then. I will update the information to be more accurate! Thanks again. Chryss.

  5. In Jordan the ghoutra is called a hatta and their color is also the red and white. I do believe some other countries use that color scheme as well so it does leave a bit of guessing though I don’t think anyone other then Palestine use the black and white…I could be wrong but I don’t think so.

  6. also, all of her immediate family can see her uncovered (I don’t mean down to skivvies), but her hair, can see her in shorts for instance….not just the husband. This means her parents and siblings pretty much…And there are many variations of the abaya such as the jilbab (I think some of the variations of title and styles is mostly due to dialect & region)…I personally own some of these things but I steer away from the black. I think it brings up too much judgement here it the U.S. Even my hijabs (Shaylas tend to not cover all the hair where as hijabs whether one piece or two should cover all the hair) are usually pretty. I even have pastel pink and blue that shimmer…As far as underneath, there is a Hadith saying that even if the wind blows your garment up and someone sees your leg there is no sin, nothing wrong so when I cover that way I tend to do just undergarments or shorts with undergarments. I’m in FL where it is hot and humid and it does stay cooler that way. I can’t see wearing pants underneath when it’s not required.

  7. Oh and thank you for the article. Honestly I was looking for Dishdash patterns (hoping a friend could sew some fun ones) and somehow this came up! LOL! That’s another thing, the women tend to wear lighter dishdash styles in the homes, thicker out for azimas (parties) and then the abayas, jilbabs etc. tend to usually be a bit more formal though not necessarily more fancy…just depends as for instance Jordan is a very poor country. Even those with good jobs are usually not extremely well off but just very comfortable.

    1. Hi Caressa, thanks so much for reading my post and also for providing me (and everyone else) with more detailed information. It’s always good to learn more!
      Please keep reading and feel free to write any time.
      Chryss

  8. Hi I also loved your article. I had the wonderful life experience of living in the developing Khamis Mushayt in Saudi Arabia working in an American operated Saudi Military hospital in 1982. We only wore abayas out to parties… With minis underneath or when we went to major cities. Can understand your comment of women feeling powerful only them knowing what was underneath…I have a lovely collection of abayas and yashmaks with gold thread embroided. Came across your article by googling dish dash, we called them thobes. Recently some younger friends of our family have visited the UAE and many flying with Emirates and gaining an understanding of the life of an Arab which is fantastic. I enjoyed my limited learning of some lovely people that I came across. To experience life as a minority is a wonderful learning tool. There was only 65 Aussies where I was, but everyone was very aware of us… And only a small number of expats in total. Enjoy your memories. Cheers Marie

    1. Hi Marie, thanks for your lovely comments. Wow, I bet you could write a book based on your experiences. Things have certainly changed around here and they continue to change at a breakneck pace. It sure is interesting living in such a quickly developing region.
      I hope you keep reading. Drop me a line anytime!
      Chryss

  9. Thank you for a very beautifully written and informative blog. Please, may I add a little bit of information regarding the Igal, which literally means hobble, originally used to tie up your camel at night so it does not wader off in the dark. But you don’t want to loose this useful piece of kit during the day so the obvious place to carry it (during the day) is on your head, where it keeps the Shemag or Guthra in place.

    1. Wow, AQ Al-Saud, what a wonderful piece of history! I just love it. And it’s so strange, my husband and I were talking about that just last week (a few days before you wrote), wondering if the igal could possibly be used for something other than holding the guthra in place. Now we know! Thank you so much for educating me (and my readers). Thanks also for reading my page (and your lovely comments – they mean a lot to me).
      All the best.
      Chryss

  10. Thanks so much for the info on Emirati dress. I found it most interesting and informative . I have just returned from a very short stay in Abu Dhabi and everything you have said has been told to me word for word by the concierge of the hotel (I drilled him whenever I had the chance re Emirati customs.)
    I also detected the same feeling you talked about regarding the girls swishing about in their abayas. ( I still think black is the worst colour one can wear in the heat and no one could tell me why they can’t or won’t wear other lighter colours).
    Thanks again

    1. Hi Mary, thanks for comment – phew, I’m glad that your concierge verified what I wrote (concierge’s know everything)!!! I agree about the colour of abayas – I don’t know why the men are able to wear white but the women have to wear black. In this heat!!!
      I hope you enjoyed your stay.
      Cheers
      Chryss

  11. Just desire to say your article is as astonishing.

    The clarity in your publish is just excellent and i could assume you are a professional in this subject.
    Fine together with your permission allow me to take hold of your RSS feed to stay up to
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    1. Wow, thank you so much. It means the world to me that you think I am a pro – I wish I was!!! I would be thrilled for you to subscribe to my feed. I publish once a month. I hope you continue to enjoy my writing.
      Chryss

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