burqa

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.