The abaya is everyday wear for women in the Middle East but Malaysians are also keen to take up on it, writes Aznim Ruhana Md Yusup
IT is perhaps our inclination to soak up other cultures that we sometimes see the Malays wearing something other than traditional Malay attire on Hari Raya.
It would have been unthinkable many years ago, but we did not have the style choices that we have now.
But what’s tricky about taking outfits from other cultures and making them our own is that we sometimes get things wrong. A sartorial mistranslation, if you please.
These can be harmless, or they can turn into a form of cultural appropriation, where no respect is paid to the people from which the clothing comes from.
But the local women who have adopted the abaya tend to do so in deference, thanks to the increasing popularity and high esteem of Arab culture in Malaysia. We don’t speak Arabic though, so there’s still the matter of getting the terms right.
“The abaya by definition is a robe, and it is always open at the front,” says Fiona Ross, head of operations of Hidaya International, a Malaysian brand that specialises in high-end abaya. “If it’s closed, then it’s a jubah (or jalabiya).”
“An abaya should be loose and not reveal the shape of your body. And because it is open, you need to layer it with pants or dress underneath. You can even wear pyjama pants if you want. But if you want to look more polished, we sell fully sequinned leggings and pants, and you can see it peeking from underneath the abaya as you walk.”
BLACK ON BLACK
In a way, you can say that we’ve been wearing the abaya for hundreds of years. It is said that the robe came to our shores through Arab traders. Down the line, it became shorter and more close-fitting, and known as the kebaya
But the traditional abaya usually comes in black. Even the embellishments, such as the embroidery and beading, are in black. But there’s something about living in the tropics that make us shun black on black, in place of something with colour.
Hidaya’s Hari Raya collection is called Sugar and Spice, and it includes light and pastel-coloured abaya as well as black abaya with colourful beading and embroidery. Other designs are further embellished with feathers and lace.
“We have a shop in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates at a mall called Arabian Center,” says Fiona. “But what we sell there is different from what we sell here. Whatever we do in colour here, we have it in black on black there. Here, there’s not a lot of interest in black on black. People find it boring and it reminds them of mourning clothes.”
Other cultural differences include the size of the abaya. Women in the Middle East like their abaya loose and baggy. But customers here are more size-conscious. So while the abaya is generally loose-fitting, Malaysians still want it to fit well and not have it look like they’re borrowing someone else’s clothes.
“There’s also the length of the abaya,” Fiona continues. “Over there, the abaya sweeps the floor but people here don’t like it because it will get dirty.”
LAYER UPON LAYER
To meet the demands of Malaysian customers, Hidaya makes closed abaya, known locally as a jubah. It’s made with material that is not sheer or flimsy, so the wearer can wear it like a maxi dress without having to wear something underneath.
It also has a style of abaya that comes with a matching waistband so it can be worn like a wrap dress. But that is by no means a traditional abaya.
Fiona says: “People here don’t like to layer because it’s hot. But it’s not just that, because it’s hotter in the Middle East. It’s their daily wear and they don’t stop wearing the abaya in the summer. In colder months, they will wear thicker abaya.”
The black abaya is made with a special fabric manufactured in Japan specifically for the purpose and is shipped only to Dubai. That same material is not available in colour due to a lack of demand, so they make do with what’s available.
“We make a lot of white abaya but non-black high quality fabric is not easy to find. Our customers like light-coloured abaya to wear to the mosque on Hari Raya morning, and then they get home and change into their colourful baju kurungs.”
Hidaya also does abaya for umrah and haj. These come in white, grey or black and are plain with no beadwork, or maybe with just a dash of Swarovski stones. It’s an option for the customers besides the traditional telekung.
“We’re not trying to Arabicise Malaysians,” Fiona says. “An abaya is just the simplest and most comfortable thing you can wear for prayers. It’s easy to wear and to style. You can wear it for buka puasa and straight to prayers, so it’s very convenient.”
Fiona’s favourite from the Sugar and Spice collection is called Juniper. It’s comes in navy blue and features intricate beadwork. “I wear an abaya every Raya.”
Hidaya International operates from its showroom in Ken Bangsar. It has booth at the concourse of Bangsar Shopping Centre during the Raya shopping period. Prices start from RM800.
Tales from Saudi Arabia
ZATI Hazira Ismail is a design lecturer at a women’s university in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. Here she writes on the abaya culture in Saudi Arabia, through the observations of her friends and colleagues:
“When I was preparing to go to Saudi last year, all my abaya were loaned from my mum and younger sister. As someone who wears trousers a lot, moving to a country where you have to wear an abaya all the time is a huge transformation.
“So I left with my husband with five abaya. Out of that five, only one is suitable for the office. It’s the only one with a front opening, because by then I had I realised the nature of wearing the abaya in Saudi is different than how we understand it in Malaysia.
“We’re used to wearing the abaya or a jubah as a full outfit, whereas here it is closer to an outer wear like a jacket or cardigan. Frankly I only wear it for about seven minutes in the morning, because that’s how long it takes to get from home to the office because you take it off once you’re there.
“I had wondered if I really need to do that, considering that we wear the same thing all day at work in Malaysia. But there’s a perception if you don’t take it off. The closest that I can think of is not putting your bag down. Imagine having your handbag on you all day, people will think you’ve just arrived or you’re rushing to leave.
“In class, there’s a ‘no abaya allowed’ rule. Once I had nothing to wear to a faculty meeting, so I wore a closed abaya. Everyone was asking if I was going somewhere.”
“In general, the abaya in Saudi is black from head to toe. As a foreigner, I can wear colours, but to respect the local culture, I also wear black. I went shopping when I received my first salary, and the abaya choices baffled me. It all looks the same, but some can reach up to thousands of riyals.
“I became aware of the difference in fabric. The main thing is that it doesn’t wrinkle or show the shape of the wearer’s body. It also needs to suit the weather, because it can get up to 45 deg C in the summer, and as low as three deg C in the winter.
“I also found out that the abaya design syntax differs according to function. During Ramadhan last year, I was with a group of friends at a colleague’s house to break fast. I was admiring their abaya, but when we left for tarawih prayers, they changed into different abaya. To my eye, these look completely the same.
“It turns out the prayer abaya has a clasp on the sleeve, so you can raise your hand without revealing your wrist. After prayers, we went to the park, and they changed into another abaya. It’s an exercise abaya with ‘hidden trousers’, although you can’t tell the difference just by looking at it.
“But that is exactly the objective for traditional abaya wearers, which is to not show any visual differentiation in what they wear, even though the context requires variation in its design.
“Then you have the special occasion abaya, for weddings or family gatherings. When a colleague of mine got married, her bridal abaya had elaborate feathers and intricate beading. She only wore it for the time it took to get from the car to the event hall.”