When I lived in Bahrain in the late 1970s and through the 1980s, I thought Muslim women were steadily evolving away from the covered heads and black cloaks (abayas) of earlier decades. I almost never saw someone with a veil over her face.
True, the Khomeini Revolution forced Iranian women back into black covering from head to foot, but even in Iran, faces-without the forbidden makeup-were unveiled.
When I returned to Bahrain in 2006, after 16 years away, I found the changes in dress startling. Not more modern, as I would have predicted in the 80s, but distinctly more traditional. In the malls, almost all women wore the ankle length black abaya, but its style had changed. No longer a cape that covered the head and extended over the body, the abaya had transitioned to a black, ankle-length dress, supplemented by a black head covering that often included a veil over the face.
Although former students told me that many of the veiled women were from Saudi Arabia, now easily accessible over the causeway that connected the two countries, many Bahrainis dressed the same. “Why the change?” I asked in every conversation.
Diverse explanations were proposed, but all centered on the fact that Muslims felt their faith to be threatened, and dress became a way of affirming their Muslim identity.
Some suggested that the Khomeini Revolution, the Afghan-Soviet conflict, or the Gulf War of 1990 had triggered the concern. Others proposed that the changing role of women, with much greater involvement in higher education and employment, led them to choose conservative dress to demonstrate that a change in life style was not a rejection of the faith.
I returned in 2009 wondering if the trend toward traditional dress had intensified. It had not. Perhaps not enough time has passed for a definite conclusion, but my impression is that fewer women veil their faces and the abaya has become a more fashionable outer covering. The cover picture for my book was taken this year and although most of the girls wear an abaya, it is not the traditional sleeveless cape. Wide, embroidered sleeves are clearly visible. Most of the women wear a black scarf over their hair but in the background are several with uncovered heads and no abaya. This is also what I observed on the street and shops.
Unlike Iran or Saudi Arabia, Bahrain has no laws regulating women’s dress. The pressure to conform to what others are wearing, felt by women everywhere, has a major role in determining dress in Bahrain. Probably the choices are more complex there because of the tension between religiously backed tradition and newer trends that assert a changed role for women.
Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have laws governing woman’s dress. I had little direct experience with Saudi women’s dress on my recent trip, but I spent nearly two weeks in Iran.
As I planned my Iranian trip, I remembered the dress restrictions inaugurated by Khomeini in 1979 and imposed by harsh treatment of women who protested. With this in mind, I borrowed an abaya with sleeves and packed several scarves to cover my head. Although I saw similar garments in rural provinces, I was out of step in the cities, where the women have largely abandoned the ankle-length chador (abaya). The new style is a knee-length, fitted coat-dress worn over pants. Far from shapeless, this manteau is often cinched with a wide belt, producing a rather modern and stylish look.
Other restrictions enforced in the early Khomeini years are also gone. Make-up is universal, and although a scarf is required by law, inches of hair show on all women except those in official positions who wear a uniform black scarf that fits smoothly around the oval of their face. No faces are veiled.
I eventually abandoned my efforts to dress inconspicuously. When I did not wear my borrowed abaya in the cities, I was left with my usual cotton pants and long sleeved shirts. Provided my head was covered, these were perfectly acceptable by Iranian law, but the light colors I normally wear drew attention in a society where women universally wear dark colors. Under a navy blue manteau, an Iranian college girl might wear blue jeans, but the overall effect is dark.
This is not true for school girls for whom pastels are the rule. I saw many girls, aged perhaps 7 to 14, as they left school or were on their way home and all wore pants covered by a knee length tunic with a head covering of the same color. Each school had its distinctive color. Pale blue and pink seemed to be popular choices. Are light colors considered suitable only for children, with darker colors indicating maturity? I could only observe.
Muslim women in all countries dress in compliance to the Islamic mandate that their bodies be covered from neck to ankles. Although Bahrain and Iran are close geographically, women dress quite differently. My tentative conclusion, based on limited time in these two countries, is that women’s dress in the Middle East is diverse and evolving. My tentative conclusion, based on limited time in these two countries, is that women’s dress in the Middle East is diverse and evolving.