The glamorous girls shroud their jeans and colourful tops with long black robes, mixing fashion with religion and tradition.

 

"I think it looks really elegant. There are so many abayas on the market at the moment - the latest being the farasha, or butterfly-style abaya. It isn't tight-fitting like the French-style abaya, which is made to fit the body.

 

"It's loose with tight sleeves often embroidered with colourful threads."

 

The abaya is an over-garment worn by many Muslim women in the Gulf. It is the traditional form of hijab, or modest Islamic dress, for many countries of the Arabian peninsula.

 

But for many women, the abaya is worn with style and purpose. It is another form of expression that offers advantages over Western outfits.

 

Denise Al-Shammari, an American convert to Islam who lives in Kuwait, wears the abaya strategically.

 

"It's a convenience thing ... I don't wear the abaya, but if I have to take the kids to school in the morning, I may just whip it on over my pyjamas."

 

Avoiding attention

Carla Stadnyk, a 29-year-old Canadian health inspector teaching environmental health at the College of North Atlantic in Qatar, freely switches between the abaya and Western clothes.

 

"I often wear the abaya at times of cultural sensitivity. When I go to get my car washed or serviced, then I'll wear it. I feel safer. I wear it to avoid stares from workers, to protect myself and keep myself in a happy bubble.

 

Carla Stadnyk wears the abaya
to avoid stares from men

"Sometimes I wear the niqab, so nothing but my eyes are showing ... and it actually calms me. It calms my spirit."

   

When Stadnyk chooses to wear a short skirt or gets dressed up for a wedding, she covers her outfit with the abaya as she travels from her home to her destination.

 

"Living in Qatar there is a constant battle with men staring. Workers actually gawk and refuse to turn away when you catch their eye ... it's like your spirit is fighting to block this energy."

 

Another perk of wearing the abaya is re-discovering male chivalry.

 

"When I am doing my grocery shopping, guys push my trolley out for me, but when I Western clothes that never happens," Stadnyk said.

 

Cultural choice

 

Lulua, a 40-something Qatari, is lunching with her sister. The pair are dressed in traditional black. Lulua's face is layered with heavy make-up. Strands of hair peep out from beneath her head covering, large gold-rimmed sunglasses adorn her head.

   

"We have always worn the abaya in Gulf countries - it is part of our culture. I have around 30 abayas at home and buy a new one about every two to three months.

 

Lulua thinks only tall, slim women
can carry off the butterfly abaya

"Personally, I don't like the farasha-style abaya because there is no shape to it. You can only get away wearing it if you are tall and slim."

 

One reason Lulua wears her abaya is to please her husband.

 

"I wear my abaya because my husband likes it - Qatari men generally like it," Lulua said.

 

Mohammed al-Sheikh, a 26-year-old Qatari, says he finds abayas very attractive, especially when they are fitted.

 

When he gets married, he wants his wife to wear one. But in his future wife's case, it would not be for her to look attractive - it would be for her to be protected from other men's prying eyes.

 

"I don't want all the men in the street to be staring at my wife. Her beauty is just for me, so I would encourage her to wear the abaya."

 

Contrasting views

 

But for Mai, a 28-year-old Syrian working in Doha, abayas are unattractive garments that remind her of death.

 

"I don't understand how anyone can voluntarily wear the abaya … There is no way that I find it attractive," she said.

 

"Young women look old wearing it. They should wear bright attractive colours, not dark morbid ones ...we are not going to a funeral."

 

Souk Faleh is known for its wide
selection of fashionable abayas

A contemporary abaya is usually a robe, cut from light, flowing fabrics such as crepe, georgette, and chiffon. They are now made in colours other than black.

 

Souks in Qatar are crowded with shops selling the traditional garment.

 

Abdul Rasoul Ali Zadeh owns an abaya shop in Doha's popular Souk Faleh, known to have the best selection of abayas in town.

  

Zadeh, an Iranian, says most of his customers are Qatari: "Qatari women come in here to keep up with the latest fashion. Egyptian women are the next group of women who want to buy fashionable abayas, but it is not just Arab women who choose to wear the abaya."

 

Indian and Pakistani women wear the garment, too, as do other Arab nationals.

 

"Anyone can wear them ... it's for all of womankind ... There are no restrictions," Zadeh said.

 

 

Some abayas are covered in crystals, other in fanciful embroidery. There are abayas decorated with butterflies, clocks, alphabet and Chinese fabric. Anything goes.

 

Bin Laden design

 

Zadeh mentions some of the designs on the market.

 

"There is last season's farasha design. Its sleeves are shaped similar to a butterfly's wings. There is the new fish design that gathers material in the back. I even had one lady come in and ask for the bin Laden design.

 

"The bin Laden covers a woman from her head to her toe, revealing only her face."

 

Umm Haya wears the niqab, a
face covering, with her abaya

Umm Haya, a 25-year-old Qatari secretary, says she has about 20 abayas with different designs, but she says they are all simple in accordance with Islamic tradition. 

 

"If women start making the abaya fashionable, then it will attract men. Then this becomes haram."

 

Sheikh Abdul Salem al-Basyouni, a Muslim scholar based in Doha, agrees with Umm Haya.

 

Al-Basyouni encourages women to cover themselves, but thinks the more fashionable ornate abayas are going against the teachings of Islam, as they serve to attract men.

 

"The Prophet Muhammad told women to cover themselves and to not show their shape. A Muslim woman must cover everything except her hands and face, and this is the best way to do it.

 

"Women should not show their beauty to male strangers."

 

Modesty

 

Women's dress in Islam is based on a principle of modesty.

 

"In Islam we value women, like jewels and diamonds. They are so precious that they should be covered. They are not like pieces of broken glass lying on the street," Al-Basyouni said.

 

Nowadays, the abaya is not just for women in the Gulf region.

 

"In Islam we value women, like jewels and diamonds. They are so precious that they should be covered"

Sheikh Abdul Salem al-Basyouni

Al-Shammari, the US convert, set up an online abaya store - AlHediya.com - in 1998 for women living in the West who want abayas but cannot find them in their communities.

 

"Most of my customers are plus size. In the Western world, there is so much emphasis on being perfect and wearing skimpy outfits ... the more revealing you are, the more acceptable ... it's degrading. Women shouldn't be judged by what size they are."

 

The abaya serves as a convenient garment for women. For some the simple cloth adds to their feminine attraction; others wear it to escape the male gaze. But for all, the abaya proves that the way a woman dresses is only one aspect of her identity.