In Australia, “Sheila” is a term for a woman. It’s fairly archaic now – generally only used by rusty old bogans from the outback, and rarely comes without the obligatory sexist smack on the bottom and a demand for a “frosty one from the icebox” (beer from the fridge). In the Middle East, a sheila is a head covering, pronounced with an “ay” vowel sound rather than “ee”, and also spelled shaila, shela and shayla. You will see plenty of “Sheelas” in Australia, but “shaylas” are few and far between.

In countries like Australia, France and the USA, any dress that covers more than what they deem “normal” is seen by some as a form of cruelty or domination. The first thing most Australians would think upon seeing a woman in traditional Arabic dress is “she’s from a different world”, followed by “that poor thing, her husband/father makes her dress like that” and “she must have a terrible life.” And it’s little surprise. Australia’s Muslim minority only takes up about 1.5% of the total population, and many have assimilated to the point where conservative dress has been abandoned. The only time we see any traditional arabic dress is on TV, when we see Iraqi women wailing with grief over their son’s bloodied bodies, or rows of Taliban-governed Afghan women in blue burqas with only a gauze for vision. Of course we associate it with misery and oppression.

Just before I moved to Dubai, I had even been asked by some Australians if I would be forced to wear a burqa once I got here (these were not the brightest sparks in my peer group). In France, they banned the burqa (I’m still deciding how I feel about this).

When I first arrived in Dubai, I had never been to any part of the middle east. I remember the first trip to the Mall of the Emirates with my son Lion (then four years old), and he actually screamed when he saw a woman coming towards him in an abaya and a niqab – he thought she was a ghost. Only last night, I heard a full-grown man describe a beautiful, fragile woman in an abaya and hijab as “Darth Vader”. And I, after three years of living surrounded by traditional dress, have only just started to look women in the eye if they wear a niqab – I suppose I had subconsciously assumed that because she covered so much, she did not want to be looked at. It does take getting used to. The abaya I love, but the fact that a woman will willingly cover her entire face is still alien to me – I would feel like I couldn’t breathe or talk properly. The cloth on it’s own would be a burden, whether I was forced to wear it or not.

Traditional Emirati burqa

Lion (now 7) has finally become accustomed to the appearance, and Goldilocks (4) has always been accustomed – in fact, when I got Lion to take the photo of me above, Goldilocks was dancing around alongside declaring “Mummy Bootiful!”

So, for all my western readers, after hearing a little about it at the cultural breakfast, I had an informal chat with an Emirati, a Saudi, and a crossed-culture muslim about this ever-so-oppressive dress. (I’m going to call them Cheryl, Barbara and Nolene respectively, because then you’ll know they are not their real names)

Surprise, surprise, it turns out they have a choice.

Cheryl wears an abaya (black, ground-length cloak, slightly tapered but not tight, closed at the front), and a hijab, or sheila (headscarf). When I visited her at home, she wore none of those things, and although she is very beautiful, I must say, the grace and stature she possesses when in traditional dress is lost. Cheryl wears the abaya because it is absolutely normal for her to do so, and only a small percentage of Emirati women don’t wear it at least most of the time. She says it is much like Indian women wear a saree or shalwr kameezes, and if she didn’t wear it, she would position herself as a minority within her peer group. It is traditional dress as distinct from required by religion (it was around well before Islam, and worn by Jews and Christians before Muslims), and she never wears it while abroad (although some do).

Abaya and sheila

Cheryl argues that contrary to feeling oppressed by it, that this form of attire opens doors for her. The treatment she receives at banks, airports and government offices is alone worth dressing up for. Cheryl has a choice of the style – for example, she chooses not to wear a niqab, and her abaya and hijab are adorned. There are many different shapes and styles to the abaya and the head covering, and it is easy to express one’s individuality despite the fact they are all in head-to-toe black (One day soon we are going to go out spotting the abaya-wearing “tarts” and “geeks” and “bohos” over coffee). One day I saw her dressed for a wedding, and although out, she was not wearing the hijab, and had fuchsia detail on the collar and creeping down the front. Her height and the liquid nature of that adorned and billowy cloak made her set for the catwalk – I wasn’t the only one admiring her. Cheryl believes the burqa is considered quite old fashioned, and the niqab stereotypes the wearer as conservative, even by her.

Her other reason for wearing traditional dress is that she feels elegant, and it’s true – she, and other Emirati women who dress like her, look like they are going to a ball. It’s probably the same reason that the traditional dress looks so funny when worn by women while exercising – to me it appears like they’re jogging in haute couture.
Barbara wears western dress. And although I have never seen her in a tank top and short shorts, I would not even call it particularly conservative. In Jeddah, she wears an abaya and hijab, partially because she must, but again, because she does not want to stand out. In Saudi Arabia, quite distinct from the UAE, where adaptation of traditional dress by westerners is discouraged, all women are required to cover everything except for their faces and hands. Probably because she grew up with it, she does not feel oppressed by it, but she never, ever wears traditional dress out of Saudi Arabia. She recalled stories of her youth of bathing in shorts and t-shirts on the sun-drenched Jeddah foreshore, but she’s not so sure if that would be tolerated now – the religious police are finding more power every day. She used to enjoy the freedom of wearing an abaya, and because it covered everything underneath, she could do the shopping in her pyjamas.

Noelene dresses in conservative western dress and wears only a sheila. It is almost part of her skin, and I have only once seen her without it. She wears it because her faith dictates it, and she is very happy with her chosen faith. In fact, she is the only one that mentioned Islam when explaining why she wears the sheila. And after all, the Quran only suggests modest dress and the covering of the bosom, not a full-body sheath. She sees no problem with her chosen form of modesty, enjoys it, and treats it like an accessory, different colours, textures, ornamentation.

All women said that contrary to belief that their fathers or husbands made them go “behind the veil” so to speak, they make their own decisions on this. So these women are far from oppressed, but this is not an area ruled by religious police or the Taliban. And so I would suggest that the women subjected to the rules in countries such as these are not oppressed by their religion, but by men, probably the same kind of men that are happy to dominate people in any other way they can find, not with just attire, but freedom in all its forms. I have never been to a country under this kind of rule, and despite a fairly open mind, I doubt I ever will.

Also, I would argue that although the women say they don’t feel forced to wear this form of dress (except for Barbara when she is in Saudi Arabia), their community or peers make quite strong demands upon them. If any were to buck against this trend, would they (particularly Cheryl) label themselves as revolutionary, or in the least, a controversial drama queen?


for those who would like a rundown on the names an types of traditional Arabic dress, go here.

15 thoughts on “Sheilas in shelas and impressions on oppression”

  1. My general rule of thumb is that people may do what they wish with their bodies, as long as it doesn't negatively impact upon others.I very much enjoyed the insights offered by Cheryl, Barbara and Nolene as I have never had an opportunity to actually talk to local ladies about traditional dress.Thanks a bunch for the link at the end, i'm now going to spend the next 5 minutes attempting to drill these words into my head.

  2. Context is everything and my "Darth Vader" comment should also be accompanied by the fact this lady approached our group in greeting, as we have known each other through community events for over a year!Yes folks, they walk, they talk, indeed they are like all people, humans, and the sooner the microscope is removed, because of their failure to conform to "western norms", the better. Would anybody want to come from a community that writes this as being typical: "and rarely comes without the obligatory sexist smack on the bottom and a demand for a "frosty one from the icebox"?

  3. Ah, yes. Don't see what that has to do with my thoughts on oppression though. Besides, I DON'T think that traditional dress in Dubai = oppression, which was the point to my lengthy speel above…

  4. just like any people community anywhere else in the world. Even with muslims they are some good ones and some not-so-good ones. I am an Indian and I wear an Abaya and a Shayla although, I was never ever even told to consider doing proper hijab. So yea, it is anything except opression. At the same time i have even read about girls who did not really want to wear an abaya, but due to pressure from society and family they had to adopt it.The thing that some people forget about the religion is that 'There's no compulsion in Religion' and thats not what I say, its whats written in the Quran as well.In my case, my mom hardly wore an abaya, and i think it was mostly because it was convenient to go out in when not properly dressed. In the Indian sub continents many women do wear abayas but in their family parties they let it all go. While even that is not allowed. When I started to observe proper Hijab (except in front of my dad, brother,maternal & paternal uncles) … Many people didn't think I would take it so seriously. I was even questioned by my relatives, and was put under pressure on many ocassions to ditch the shayla and show my hair in family parties where i had my cousins too..So no, Abaya/ Hijab is not oppression, there are always some exceptions tho.

  5. I'm gonna give a different point of view to this. i'm a local women, and i dont like wearing the shila and abba, but pretty much had to by 14. the shila and abaa is not a balck and white area. A lot wear them by their chioce, some because of pressure, some the need to be included.

  6. Anonymous, thank you for sharing. I was sure there was more to it – and I understand the pressure to conform to a community as a whole, my pressure was not clothing related though. I would love to tell your story. If you are ok with this (you would remain anonymous) please contact me on

  7. Here's a question for debate: why abandoning abaya and hijab once outside of Arabian Peninsula? If one feels so comfortable wearing it why change the habit? I wouldn't like to sound judgemental, just trying to understand! And I guess I'm also sensitive about hypocrisy…

  8. Interesting point. From what Cheryl told me, it's because the garb is traditional local dress rather than religious. When they travel, the religion remains, but the locality is different. I think that's why some retain the shela while abroad, because that is what is required of religion, whereas the abaya is not.But that's only what I have gathered – its not like I'm an expert!

  9. Hmm, a very interesting post! A bit about myself: an Emirati student from Dubai studying in Sydney, and this is my 6th year here. I return to Dubai every xmas holiday for a month or so.I chose 'World Religions' as part of the general education courses, and in that I was given a question to be answered in a 5-minute presentation. The question: "why do Muslim women wear the hijab?"The question itself could be answered in two different aspects. One, by using religious evidence, i.e. the Qur'an and the Hadeeth (sayings of the Prophet, peace prayers and blessings be upon him). The other, by using the different personal preferences Muslim women around the world have regarding their veil.I used the first approach, whilst the lecturer wanted the second. The second gave reasons such as 'revolutionary', 'identity', 'not oppressed', etc – no faith is involved, and seeing how I was raised I was furious because the most important topic "religion" was ignored.Since then, I reflected back and realised that I could have answered better. But then again, I was still young, and better answers only come from experience, or should I say: time.Once again, thanks for your post.

  10. Sorry to comment on this so late, but I would just like to point out that abaya is not "traditional local dress". Muslim women all over the world wear abaya, although in the Gulf it's been taken on as "traditional" to separate locals and expats. Abaya IS a religious garment, and if you look in the Qur'an verse where it tells women to cover, it tells them to cover with a "jilbab". Jilbab means like over-garment. Abaya is a *type* of jilbab.

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