What Is a Saudi Abaya?

Todd Podzemny
Todd Podzemny
A woman wearing a Saudi abaya and a niqab.
A woman wearing a Saudi abaya and a niqab.

The Saudi abaya is a loose-fitting article of women's clothing that is intended to cover the wearer from neck to ankle while leaving the hands and face exposed. Similar robes and cloaks are worn by women around the world as a modest form of public costume derived from Qur'anic writings and Muslim traditions. In Saudi Arabia, women are required by law to wear the abaya when appearing in public. This requirement is enforced by the mutaween, the Saudi religious police, and it applies to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

The flag of Saudi Arabia.
The flag of Saudi Arabia.

The wearing of the Saudi abaya is intended to hide the body of a woman from men who are not directly related to her. It is part of a tradition of modest dress that requires Saudi Arabian men to wear ankle-length shirts and head coverings in public. The parts of the body that are considered inappropriate for public display are collectively known as awrah. The specific parts of the body that constitute awrah differ between women and men and between different cultures and theologies. In Saudi Arabia, the abaya is commonly worn in conjunction with gloves and a veil that covers the entire face except a narrow slit around the eyes, although this is far from universal.

In Saudi Arabia, women are required to wear the abaya when in public.
In Saudi Arabia, women are required to wear the abaya when in public.

Abaya styles vary considerably throughout Saudi Arabia. The basic design of the Saudi abaya consists of either a sleeved robe or a single square sheet of cloth that has a neck hole in the middle, similar to a long poncho. Abayas traditionally are black, although navy blue and dark brown abayas are not uncommon. The sleeves of the Saudi abaya are often decorated with embroidery or dyed patterns, with the body of the abaya unadorned. In some of the more conservative areas of Saudi Arabi such as Mecca and Medina, abayas are more commonly black and entirely unadorned.

The design of the Saudi abaya is derived from Qur'anic writings.
The design of the Saudi abaya is derived from Qur'anic writings.

Starting in about 2008, brightly colored and decorated abayas began to grow in popularity in a few of Saudi Arabia's more liberal cities. Although they conform to the general cut and modest design of traditional abayas, these more recent designs allow for greater expression of individuality and fashion by the women who wear them. The trend has drawn attention from the international fashion community, and elaborate abayas have been displayed in fashion shows. Although there is nothing in Saudi Arabian law regarding the decoration or color of the abaya, there have been cases of brightly colored abaya being confiscated by the mutaween.

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    • A woman wearing a Saudi abaya and a niqab.
      A woman wearing a Saudi abaya and a niqab.
    • The flag of Saudi Arabia.
      By: Stefano Ginella
      The flag of Saudi Arabia.
    • In Saudi Arabia, women are required to wear the abaya when in public.
      By: Bastos
      In Saudi Arabia, women are required to wear the abaya when in public.
    • The design of the Saudi abaya is derived from Qur'anic writings.
      By: Orhan Çam
      The design of the Saudi abaya is derived from Qur'anic writings.