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More Than a National Dress: The Symbolic Context of Abaya
Based on 32 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), supplemented by 23 in-depth interviews with Emiratis, this article explores the symbolic context of the abaya – a black garment worn by women throughout the Arab Gulf states as a national dress. While the common public discourse in the West perceives this as a symbol of oppression for women, I argue that the abaya transforms into a symbol of power in the UAE. Primarily, given the demographic imbalance that renders migrants the majority population, the abaya serves as a symbol for Emirati women to assert their authority as citizens against the non-nationals in everyday encounters. Secondly, the sartorial choice is bargained as a statement to establish a shared sense of nationality, notwithstanding the socioeconomic and ethnic hierarchies within the Emirati citizenry. Lastly, worn to display and not to veil, the abaya as fashion illustrates a powerful form of resistance. It is a subversion of gendered expectations within the parameters of the Islamic patriarchal hegemonic order, and a local negotiation of global forces through the incorporation of Western couture into the cultural garment. This article highlights the symbolic context in which identities are created and perpetuated, thereby advancing our understanding of the meaning-construction process of cultural objects.
Political Science
Religious Studies/Theology
Geographic Area
Arab States
Arabian Peninsula
Sub Area