Myths

  • Saudi women never uncover their faces

With the exception of a very few remote bedouin tribes, women uncover  in front of other women. If you enter any school, university, salon, women's coffee shop or family home you will see jeans, tank tops, nose piercings and various versions of Miley Cyrus's latest haircut. Women also uncover in front of close male relatives.

  • They're all wearing the same thing​​​​

There is a difference between your summer abaya, your winter abaya, the abaya you wear to uni, and the one you wear to mosque. Just like your little black dress, the styles change each season, and you will be called out for wearing an "old lady hijab".

  • Even small girls are forced to cover

Small girls go to the mall dressed as Disney princesses, just like everywhere else. Girls are usually encouraged to start wearing hijab around puberty. It's true that designers like Ruba will produce abayas in children's sizes, but this is usually more for dress up (like wearing mummy's high-heel shoes) than for preserving modesty.​​

  • The black veil has always been part of Saudi culture

The black veil has existed for centuries in some parts of the Kingdom - among certain bedouin tribes and in the central Najd region. Equally, brightly embroidered tunics, pantaloons and straw hats dominated in other areas. The wearing of the black niqab and abaya did not become the norm until after the Iranian revolution of 1979. 

THE VEIL

What is she wearing?​

 

​Burqa 

No, she's not wearing that. The burqa is a one-piece garment that covers a woman from the top of her head to her feet, with an opening for her eyes, usually covered by a fabric mesh. Common in Afghanistan, the burqa does not exist in Saudi Arabia.

Abaya

This is the long, loose-fitting cloak worn over a woman's everyday clothes when she leaves the house. Usually made of a lightweight fabric, and often, but not always, black. 

Shaila / Tarha

This is the headscarf worn with the abaya. 

Niqab

Often tied over the tarha, the niqab is a light-weight veil that covers the forehead and lower face (see the image on this page).

Hijab 

The arabic word hijab has many translations, which is part of the reason why there are so many interpretations of what modest dress entails in the Muslim world.  Most simply it means 'cover' and may refer to a concealing garment, a screen dividing a room or even shelter. 

Saudis speak

"It's easier, you know, when you haven't done your hair or you're not ready. You can go out with your pyjamas underneath!" - The Singleton

"It doesn't have to be black. But black is mainly because, you don't pay attention to it. If you chose another colour, for example, purple, there are different shades of purple. And if there were different shades, men would still pay attention, they might like some more than others." - The Muttawah

"Even if I was ugly, ugly with one eye and no teeth, if a man told me I was beautiful I would believe him! This is how men get what they want. Hijab protects me from all this; it means the only woman you call beautiful is your wife!" - The Teacher

"I don't cover my face when I travel. But you see the men here, they are different from your country. There they are used to seeing women. Here, they see a woman, they go crazy! We are always separate; they don't know how to react." - The Security Guard