To Abaya or not to Abaya?


By al-Sarsara

Sunday evening in Manama. The girls cover their faces with their long black veils as tear gas seeps into the alleyway. “Down with the regime! Down, down Hamad!” they shout, as the boys bang on pans, walls, anything. Following my hostile environment training protocol, I try to keep a safe distance from Bahrain’s rowdy masses.

A few seconds later, the police rush in and everyone flees. I realize the futility of trying to separate myself from them inside this cramped alleyway. One woman grabs me by the hand and we race up the stairs of a crumbling building to the roof. And then she turns on me.

“Why aren’t you wearing an abaya? Are you crazy?” she shouts. “They will spot you a mile away!”

As if on cue, a policeman holding a sound grenade launcher looks suspiciously at me when my unscarved head peeps over the wall. The owner of the stranger’s house we have run inside hands me a black headscarf. This will do for now, she says, as we cautiously peer at the street skirmishes below.

It’s a difficult question—to abaya or not to abaya?

I have no moral conflict over wearing a veil or abaya, the long black cloak worn over one’s clothes. For me, this is a sheer calculation over the costs and benefits of fitting in. With an abaya, I can better move among the people without notice. But it also means I won’t be recognized as foreign press – and perhaps be spared — should the police attack. Am I better off with it, or without it?

The girls who have now swarmed inside this half abandoned home insist the abaya will allow me to slip seamlessly undetected into the Bahraini woman’s world, a place that is a daily struggle. And yet they are encouraging me to camouflage as one of them?

Why would I give up the protection, and neutrality, of my Western-looking jeans and collared shirt in exchange for potential invisibility that could just as likely land me in the back of a police car? On the other hand, wouldn’t it give me a glimpse into how they are treated?

But how will officials treat me if they decide an American journalist has been mingling too much with the rabble rousers? It seems a lose-lose proposition.

I am tempted to wear the abaya. To be honest, I think it can actually look kind of cool. Fashionable women in big designer sunglasses wear high buns so the gauzy black veils gracefully sweep around their lower neck. And with just the slightest touch of sparkle on the trim of the black cloak and some well-heeled leg poking out beneath, the abaya makes them look like some kind of glamorous Muslim Hollywood star hiding from the paparazzi. I could handle that.

Friday in Manama. I could not handle it. I am pressed up against the back of a packed mosque listening to a cleric’s fiery sermon about human rights in Bahrain. The women later pray, standing up and kneeling, standing up and kneeling. I try to keep pace, but my scarf, and hair, flies everywhere, drawing a few smiles. I am clearly an outsider— one woman asks if I need help translating the day’s sermon. The heat suddenly feels unbearable. I am praying now too—for all of this to end.

I have decided now that I won’t wear the abaya unless required. Not because I look ridiculous (the cloak I bought is too short, my arms pop out the sleeves like a kid with a sudden growth spurt). But because I think that in this constantly shifting game of politics and identity, unless you know you are at risk, and how you are at risk, the best gamble to take is to be yourself.

Later, I see another foreign woman here, drawing stares from bemused passersby. She has a bulky scarf wrapped around her head, paired with a mini skirt and knee high boots.

I guess I could have done worse.

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