Maitha Al Memari Image Credit: Supplied

Abu Dhabi: Empowerment, culture, and a sense of belonging are some of the reasons why Maitha Al Memari wears the traditional abaya, not because she is forced to.

Delivering a lecture as part of New York Abu Dhabi’s (NYUAD) TEDx event, Maitha, an Emirati female student at NYUAD addressed some of the misconceptions surrounding the abaya and why Emirati women wear it.

Maitha acknowledged some of the negative perceptions that come with wearing an abaya, but was insistent that when it comes to the Emirati context, wearing the abaya has nothing to do with oppression or being forced to do so.

“Abayas represented adulthood for me, I only started wearing the abaya on a daily basis around three years ago, and it made me feel like a grown elegant Emirati woman. The abaya gives me a sense of home, and a sense of belonging. A meaning many people associate the abaya with is a form of oppression, it oppresses women, and disables their freedom of speech. The abaya is also seen as limiting an individual’s expression of personality. Although that might be the truth in some cases, it is not the case in every context, and in the Emirates the abaya liberates and unifies women.”

She also went on to explain that the abayas are a major part of the Emirati fashion industry, with several different styles of abayas worn for special occasions, and in different seasons.

“The abaya fashion industry is so huge in the emirates, we have special abayas for special occasions, including weddings. We also have the casual day-to-day abayas, and winter abayas which are a little bit thicker. Of course there are many other forms of abayas that women can choose from, and they can pick whatever they feel comfortable with.”

“Abayas have maintained their historical significance, they’ve also acquired a new significance, today they are a combination of self-expression with a fashion statement. Unlike the popular conception that the sole purpose of abayas is to hide women’s bodies from men, they are a huge part of Emirati fashion, and they represent many different things.” she added.

Going beyond barriers

Wearing the abaya is also a form of remaining true to the roots of the UAE, and not forgetting the local culture and tradition according to Maitha. “Wearing the abaya is a choice that many Emiratis make, just like wearing your favourite T-shirt is a choice you made. Abayas represent loyalty and patriotism, and the idea that even through all this development that we will never forget our culture and heritage,” she said.

Maitha also touched on the Global Social Progress Index that puts the UAE at number one in treating women with respect, and how this result runs contrary to many preconceived ideas people have about Muslims due to Islamophobia.

“I imagine this came as a shock to some people, because of ideas many people my have about Muslim women, an idea that casts us all, 1.6 billion Muslims under a single label. This label is partly advanced because of Islamophobia. Although some Muslim women are oppressed, just as some Jewish women are oppressed, just as some Christian women are oppressed, the unfortunate truth is that women all over the world are oppressed because of and regardless of their religion.”

She emphasised that in order to remove these negative misconceptions, people have to talk and learn about each other, to ask questions to understand the other person’s culture, moving away from overgeneralisations and stereotyping.

“It is not fair to categorise all those who are Muslim, or all those who wear abayas as oppressed just because of their choice of clothing or their choice of religion. One needs to go beyond these barriers in order to fully understand and grasp the culture. We shouldn’t let misconceptions build walls between cultures, instead we should use them to start a conversation with each other, ask questions and do not be afraid. And not only ask others questions, but also ask ourselves questions that will help us grow and gain knowledge.”