What Lies Beneath
No, I am not talking about that 1990's Michelle Pfeiffer thriller, I am talking about the misconceptions many expatriates have about what Qatari women wear under their abayas. I have to admit that I was one of them when I first came to Qatar; I came thinking that I would have to take it upon me as a moral responsibility to teach Qatari women about fashion. Six years later it turns out that they were the ones who taught me how to dress!
The majority of Qatari women have an excellent taste in clothes and accessories and many are fashionistas. Just because tradition and society expects them to wear an abaya and sheila, it does not mean that they do not brush their hair or that they put on the first thing they see when they wake up in the morning.
Qatari women are some of the world's best groomed women, paying regular visits to salons and spas, waxing body and facial hair, threading their eyebrows and getting manicures and pedicures. And under those sheilas is hair professionally cut, dyed and highlighted.
Like any woman, Qatari women love to shop and many resemble a London A-Z when it comes to knowing where to shop. They sport haute couture bags and accessories, chic shoes and fashionable outfits under their abayas. I am always asking them how they always appear so effortlessly stylish, no matter what circumstances they are under.
During my first year at university I remember being in a public bathroom and seeing a young Qatari woman covered head to toe in black, plain abaya, abayat raas and nikab, which are what the most conservative and religious Qatari women wear.
So, as she removed her abaya, abayat raas and nikab, I was expecting to see one of those old-fashioned floral-printed long-sleeved dresses. My mouth practically dropped to the floor to see that she had blonde-dyed hair and was wearing high-heeled boots and skinny jeans.
The abaya itself has become a fashion statement. You can even buy haute couture abayas nowadays. Qatari women do not see wearing abayas as a form of oppression, but as a form of individual liberation. Today, they come in every cut and design conceivable.
Like Western-style fashion, there are abayas for different times of the day and occasions. Abayas for normal daytime wear are usually plain or have simple designs. Abayas for evening wear are more elaborate, with different cuts and intricate designs. Abayas for special occasions such as weddings and Eid are so exquisite that they almost look like black gowns. Diamante, Swarovski crystals, leather, lace, denim and fur-abayas are laden with everything imaginable. You can even get sporty abayas!
Many young Qatari women are pursuing higher studies and careers in fashion design: one graduate is now working in Paris for Valentino. They are setting up their own abaya businesses and are opening their own boutiques.
So next time you see a Qatari woman who is fully covered, please do not assume that she has no idea about fashion and style. She more than likely has better taste in fashion and style than you!
Abaya: the traditional black, long and long-sleeved garment Qatari women wear on top of their clothes when they go outside the home.
Abayat raas: a traditional black over-dress similar to a cape which covers the whole body, has sleeves and a section which goes over half the head, usually worn by older women or more conservative and religious women.
Nikab: the face veil.
Sheila a long, rectangular, black headscarf worn wrapped around the head.
Yousra is a British expat who has been in Qatar for six years, has almost finished her BA in international affairs and during her time in Qatar has been qatarized - she wears an abaya and sheila, speaks the local dialect fluently and has learnt much about Qatari culture, customs, traditions (and the local men!) and is always trying to find out more.