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Chan'ad Bahraini

(Scomberomorous maculatus Bahrainius)

Note: This page has moved to a new address. Please click on the following URL to get there: http://chanad.weblogs.us/index.php?s=Bahraini fashion under wraps. Sorry for the trouble.

Bahraini fashion under wraps

Monday, May 10, 2004

The photo above is from a fashion show in Beirut exhibiting clothes by the Saudi designer Zaki bin Abboud. It isn't exactly related to this post - but I loved the design and felt like putting it up.

Anyways, Gulfreporter has a recent post about the fashion and legal requirements, of women's covering in Iran and Saudi Arabia. Over the past few years I have noticed interesting changes in Bahrain also so I thought I'd report on this issue also.

While the Bahraini state does not require it (thankfully) as in Saudi or Iran, a large portion of women still do "cover up". (I don't have any real figures to go by, but I would guess it hovers somewhere around the 50% mark). I imagine that the most popular reasons for this would be religious conviction, social/religious/moral identification, family and social pressures, and even comfort and convenience. Now, for the modern and increasingly employed Bahraini woman who wants to "cover up" (sorry, I don't know of a better term to use), there are two main options of how to dress. The one with the most flexibility is to wear the coloured hijab (headscarf) with "modest" Western style clothing below. This allows you to choose between a wide range of colour combinations. It is very common for the hijab to carry bold patterns or interesting material textures. Worn well, the hijab can look perfectly normal with jeans and a t-shirt.

More interesting (from the researcher's point of view) is the traditional abaya and hijab combo, covering the person from head to toe in black. What makes it so interesting is that even under such constraints, today's Bahraini women have learned to express themselves through fashion. Take a trip down to Seef Mall some time and observe. If you look closely you will realize that many of the young women wear abayas which are ever so subtly tapered at the waist revealing the feminine flare of the hips. Although you can't choose a colour for your hijab, there are several other adjustments you can make. For example, the type of material to use - my favorite is the "voile"/chiffon type fabric which is wrapped around so that there are several disordered layers beneath the chin (I think this is a more recent fashion). The type of border is also an important choice: beads, lace, sequins, and more. That same choice goes for the border of the cuffs of the sleeves of your abaya.

After having chosen your clothing, you get to really define yourself by the type of make-up you choose to wear. I think that women over here choose between pretty much the same cosmetic products as women in other parts of the world. From my meager observations, alot of girls (and guys!) seem to like using alot of kohl adding alot of depth to the eyes in a gazelle-like manner. But generally, alot of attention is paid to the face, and the sales figures at cosmetics shops will attest to this.

After all is done, the final look can be astonishing: elegant, sexy and modest. I don't think most people can really understand how that combination of adjectives can make sense until they actually see it for themselves. I really find it fascinating how all of the women in Bahrain (or anywhere) will insist on expressing their identity through fashion no matter how hard anyone might to try to stop them. Moreover, as more constraints are added (be they from others or self-imposed), the results are often even more interesting and moving, since the women need to think of ever more sneaky ways of getting around the restrictions without explicitly breaking the rules. When this happens, the "restrictions" no longer serve to restrict, but complement the fashions they are trying to restrict. A proof of this is the fact that many Bahraini women will still choose to wear the abaya even when they are not faced with any legal, social, family or religious pressures. In this manner, sometimes the abaya itself ironically takes on the form of a fashion statement.

One last comment on something that Gulfreporter said in his post. With regards to the slow liberalization of dress requirements in Saudi Arabia and Iran, he says: "There are positive trends at work in the region. The question is how best to encourage them." I think it's very important to be clear on what exactly we should be encouraging. One of the things I've always loved about Bahrain is the relative freedom for women to wear what they choose, be they covered or uncovered. As I've described above, many women feel much more comfortable in hijab and abaya, as it can still allow them the same amount of avenues to express themselves as Western women. What we need to be encouraging is the freedom of women to wear whatever they choose; not the systematic end of the abaya and hijab.

Disclaimer: I am neither a Bahraini, nor a woman, and I have not yet discussed these thoughts with any Bahraini women. They are merely my observations, and thus it is very possible that my description and analysis is off the mark. Therefore, I do hope that some more informed readers might provide some criticism (or possibly agreement) to this post.
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7 Responses to 'Bahraini fashion under wraps'


Anonymous Anonymous says:

Hi ur remarks regarding Bahraini fashion is very perceptive indeed. As a Bahrania, I can tell you, the minute I set foot in Bahrain I rush to change into the Abaya. Its practical, loose, modest and stylish - perfect for Bahraini weather. Although in the West, people ridicule the abaya, chadoor, or manteau, the fact is fashions evolve to the specific nature of the climate and culture of the country concerned. For example, it is not very nice to wear nylon based textiles in hot humid weather as it tends to stick, whereas such textiles are cheap and practical in colder climates such as Europe. Wearing an Abaya in Europe is not very practical either, stick to jeans. But heavy jeans in Bahrain are also a no no.

As for Bahrain and for the Gulf as a whole, generally people aim to be as conspicuous as possible, the loader, the tighter the better. That is why going to shopping malls is akin to fashion catwalk show for free!    

Blogger Chanad says:

Thanks for the comment -- it's good to know that I'm not too far off the mark.

There is one more question that I've always wanted to know about, so I'll ask you as an abaya-wearing Bahrainia. We always hear about how beneath the abaya, women are usually dressed up in the most stylish clothing. It's quite common to see designer label tags sticking out from inside abaya. However, do you ever have days when you feel too lazy dress up, so you just do your make-up and put on your abaya before going to Seef mall? It seems like something that a busy woman might be tempted to do. :)    

Anonymous Anonymous says:

Yeah of course, or when it is really hot, u keep what u wear underneath to a bare minimum ;) or if ur going to pop out quickly to get some groceries or a take-away shawarma...just bung on the abaya on top of your pj's get into the car and no one would know the difference!!    

Anonymous Anonymous says:
5/12/2004 10:31:00 pm

Arbayas if worn well can look fantastic – it’s the combination of authenticity and sexiness that so alluring. Its very difficult to convey to anyone who hasn’t visited the Gulf the true appeal of arbayas and unfortunately while issues of the hijab and the female body in Islam remain so hot politically, I don’t think the rest of the world will get a chance to appreciate their full meaning.

A friend of mine at SOAS said that the reason arbayas are sexy is because they serve to sexualise the whole female form, and it’s this appeal of “hidden fruit” that is so attractive.    

Blogger global soul says:
5/14/2004 08:08:00 am

As a Bahraini female, I find your observations and analysis very accurate. In my opinion, fashion is an important cultural statement but I think its importance has been exaggerated in the entire world but specifically in Arab countries. Meaning:

(1) Socially: too much attention is given to it(Looks and appearance)
(2) Economically: Way too much money is spent on it $$$
(3) Religiously: Too much controversy over it

ah.. the power of garments..    

Blogger global soul says:
5/14/2004 08:18:00 am

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.    

Anonymous Anonymous says:
1/25/2005 12:31:00 am

Assalam Alaukum,

I want to know if you have a clothes like abaya ,because i want to buy some .please send me information about that 

Posted by suhair    

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