MEMRI has an interesting piece by a Saudi columnist on the abaya, the complete covering that Saudi women must wear. The author notes that her mother and grandmother were free to wear simple headscarves.
“We must not deny that the abaya is an exciting garment in many ways. For instance, to outsiders and others unfamiliar with our culture, it suggests a hidden mysterious beauty. Within our community, it functions on both a religious and a social level, or it may be little more than a burden for women not accustomed to wearing it. We have to be aware that the abaya and the way it is worn have behavioral consequences that deserve social, psychological and cultural studies…
“As elucidation, I will use an example from real life. Because of her sympathy for Arabs and Muslims, Donna, an American woman, decided to wear an abaya in an attempt to see how it felt and how it influenced her behavior. She wanted to show sympathy to women wearing abayas, especially after various incidents against Muslims in the post-9/11 world. She wore an abaya and walked along one of the busiest streets in a major American city. She tried to be as normal as possible, talking to people, laughing and behaving as usual. She said that she never felt the abaya was restricting her or limiting her movements or her freedom.
“Among those who observed Donna, however, were some Muslims, Arabs, and even some Saudis. The Saudis were upset by what they saw and told Donna so. When she asked why, they explained that she was using the abaya in an invalid way. She then became curious to find out what they considered a valid way to use it. They explained to her that she must walk slowly, must look down when walking and keep her eyes more or less in front of her – no glancing from side to side, in other words. She must not talk to anyone or laugh loudly and certainly must not address any remarks to anyone lest they misunderstand her purpose in doing so.
“To say the least, Donna was astounded by their remarks and realized that they were not simply talking about a garment to be worn but about their perceptions of what an abaya symbolized. They seemed determined to deny that a normal human being was under the black material. The truth is that those Saudi men articulated something that the Saudi lifestyle and customs have created. The abaya indeed covers a typically weak and frightened character (a woman of course), who views herself as a sexual entity confined in a well-defined space she can never escape from. This is why the whole culture of the abaya imposes so many restraints upon women. One of the restraints is that she must walk as if her feet were hobbled and she was unable to move easily and normally. Nor is she allowed to look around and observe the surrounding world comfortably, as slowly or quickly as she might like. The abaya has also contributed directly to preventing certain basic movements; for example, she can no longer move her hands normally. Aside from that, ordinary free conversation is forbidden and is replaced with low and often unclear speech that makes little sense.”
The abaya is the Islamic equivalent of foot binding. Where oh where are Western feminists? Oh yes, busy denouncing George W. Bush.