While most U.A.E. women start wearing theshaila (black head scarf) and Abaya (black robe that covers all the body) after puberty, few cover their faces. The sheila and abaya have been the tradition of U.A.E. tribes before the formation of the country in 1971. Back then, women were also required to cover their faces with the burqa, which is a gold-colored mask.
Abaya are known by various names but serve the same purpose, which is to cover. Contemporary models are usually caftans, cut from light, flowing fabrics like crepe, georgette, and chiffon. Other known abaya styles are front open and front closed abaya. Styles differ from region to region: some abayat have embroidery on black fabric while others are brightly coloured and have different forms of artwork across them.
The sheila and abaya are usually enforced by the male members of the woman’s family. Not wearing the shaila and opposing a father’s or brother’s orders to cover would result in physical and verbal abuse, so few women resort to that. However, women who are forced to wear the sheila and Abaya may choose to leave loose strands of hair uncovered.
At the segregated schools, women come to school wearing the Abaya over their uniforms, and take it off during the school day. If there are no male teachers, they may also take off their sheila’s inside the classroom or the school.
The sheila is not considered Islamic veiling by U.A.E. women. It is a part of their identity and a sign that says “I am a U.A.E. woman.” Some of the U.A.E. women voluntarily choose to become “Islamically veiled” by not allowing any loose strands to show from underneath the veil, wearing thicker veils and sometimes covering their faces and wearing gloves. Covering the face and hands is considered more extreme, and some women are forced to do so by their husbands or their families if they are very religious. For this reason, it is important for the family of a woman to know how religious the family of their daughter’s future husband is.
The Abaya is continually evolving and changing in fashion. In the early years of the United Arab Emirates and until the 90’s, the Abaya used to be made of plain black fabric and designed to hide the woman’s shape and to cover what is worn underneath. Today, the Abaya can have colorful patterns and different shapes (picture to the right). Some of the newest abayas have fur at the sleeves and around the neck. Underneath the abaya, a woman is expected to dress conservatively, but some are liberal in the dress they wear under the Abaya. [Read more about what women in UAE wear under the Abaya]