What Are Emirati Women Wearing?
Updated on 04 December 2018

By: Salamah Ghudayer

These Emirati women are swathed head to toe in billowing, thin layers, but what are all of these pieces and why do they do it? The actual act of covering the hair and curves of the body is religious. How we do so, and with what is cultural, even down to the most popular color black for the outer garments. The Emirates has no law requiring women to wear religious attire, so what you see is a visual declaration of religious, national or personal identity depending on the woman. Within one Emirati family you will find ladies covering to different extents. One may be covering her hair completely, another showing half of her head, while one may cover everything including her face or another shows just her eyes. The garments she chooses from are:

The Abaya: The cloak which is often black or in natural colors is called an Abaya. It is an outer garment worn outside the home over traditional or modern clothing. They are light, natural fabric blends for the climate. 

The Shaila: The long, rectangular scarf is called a Shaila. It is wrapped in different ways around the head and covers her head and neck, yet shows her face.

The Gushwa: If she prefers to keep her face under her clothing, she can use one end of her Shaila, or a separate garment of similar fabric which hangs from the top of her head down; this is called Gushwa. The Burqa: What can be quite striking and yet is a cultural tradition is the Burqa found in the Gulf including the Emirates. Made of shiny brass colored fabric and stiff canvas, the discernable arched face covering is for the most traditional women. The Burqa is put on under the outermost layer she is wearing so as to cover the modest cords tying it in place. The structure provides a comfortable space between the Gushwa and the nose, mouth or perspiring face in the heat. It covers the eyebrows and upper lip and is connected on both sides as well as along the line of the nose. Aside from modesty, and protecting her image, it marks her as a woman proud to maintain her heritage. They are actually disposable and each are only worn for a few days.

The Niqab: Some ladies, who cover their face but drive or often ladies from neighbouring nations will wear Niqab. This is a garment tied to the head either along the forehead or over the ridge of her nose and tied at the back. The one tied at the forehead has a top layer which flips back over the head exposing an opening for just the eyes. Though popular in social media posts or for an ‘Arabian nights’ themed outfit, the niqab in this region is not bedazzled but very modest and simple. 

The Concept of Hijab: The total outfit and shielding of a Muslim woman’s body from hair to feet with any articles of clothing from any culture, providing modesty and immediately identifies her as a Muslima is the physical aspect of Hijab. The other part is actually more important; the mannerism, self respect & dignity in her speech and actions which form Hijab as well as it is in her soul. Women who wear the clothing of hijab are called Mutahajiba.

There are women who dress in national attire who are not mutahajiba and there are Muslim women who do not dress in any religious attire except for her prayers. Hijab in any of its forms can stir the emotions of many Muslims and scholars as well as non-Muslims. Yet it could be one of the most significant topics, in the greyest of areas in religious text. In the Quran and Hadith, we are asked to distinguish ourselves as Muslim women, cover the curves of our body from the top down to our hands and ankles, our clothing not be transparent, our clothing not make noise (such as with ornaments that make noise), and to preserve our beauty in public. As Muslim women, we must take those texts, consider the environmental climate, what merchandise is available and dress accordingly to our own educated decision, but it is just that her decision. The black color is very popular in the hot climate of the gulf, so as to maintain the non-transparent demand of Hijab. Like the tinting on your car windows, a thin, natural black layer can help cover even the lightest color of clothing worn underneath to not be see-through in the sun. Though black is not at all a must or even mentioned in the religion, it has added to the cultural identity of the garment.

All of this clothing is tailor made. The role of the tailor, is to provide a vast array of designs and decoration to meet the varied tastes and sensibilities of all of his clientele. Ladies usually prefer one or two tailor shops to develop a loyal relationship for good quality and a fair price as a repeat client. Time is spent pondering the sample designs or books of embroidery, to pick something that suits her style. New designs become popular with some and rejected by others. Sizes are taken from previously owned pieces with instruction to add a centimetre, reduce or maintain the same.

We are a very private society, leaving each to their own opinion and way of dressing. It is this individuality that explains the differences in the ladies you see in public covered to varying degrees. For the visitor, the ladies dressed in black may all look the same, but sit and observe and you will end up seeing the uniqueness of each, but no matter what, “you can never judge a book by its cover.”

With thanks to Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. Call 04-3536666 or visit

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