What is the Difference Between a Burqa and an Abaya?
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, 5 min reading time
When shopping for Arabic fashions, knowing the difference between a burqa and an abaya is important. Whether you have recently converted to Islam or you’ll travel to an Islamic nation for business or pleasure, purchasing the right clothing can help you blend into the culture.
The burqa definition varies by country, but in Arabic, the term refers to a loose-fitting single garment that covers a woman’s head, hair, face, and body but usually shows the eyes. Some burqas do veil the eyes, too.
A woman can fashion a burqa out of multiple garments, wearing them as an ensemble. In most countries in the Middle East, one-piece burqas prevail, offering women a simple way to get dressed for running errands or attending school quickly. Typical burqas come in solid black.
The Arabic term abaya, meaning cloak, describes a long, loose cloak with an open front that both men and women wear. Although some designs do cover the head and face, most resemble a duster coat in cut, popular in Western fashion. The abaya uses a lighter material than a coat and comes in a variety of colors.
An abaya usually doesn’t have a head covering with it, so women practicing fundamentalist Islam add a hijab. Because the garment’s design lends itself to layering, women typically wear it on top of a jilbab or a pantsuit.
Outside of the Middle East, the terms abaya and burqa refer to different garments. For instance, Pakistan and Afghanistan still use the word burqa, but other countries in the Middle East region do not. The other countries in that region use a range of terms that more aptly describe the cut and style of the fashions, such as abaya, hijab, jilbab, khimar, and niqab. The Persian word chador has also begun gaining traction.
These many terms refer to different pieces of clothing, some of which perform the same task. Both a hijab and a khimar cover the head and part of the face but use different patterns and styles. Both a chador and abaya layer on top of another piece of clothing, but women typically wear the abaya open in front but clasp the chador closed.
Designers make both garments from flexible, soft fabrics that breathe well. These light fabrics help the individual remain cool in the hot desert temperatures that reach more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the Middle East.
Both garments let the wearer adjust the material by folding, pinning, tucking, straightening, lowering, or raising. The diversity of the material offers a single garment that lends itself to many styles.
Of course, you probably still have questions about the difference between an abaya and a burqa. We’ll try to answer them here.
Since you layer the abaya, you can wear it in many ways. Most women layer it over a full-length dress, similar to a burqa. You can also wear it as a layer over a pantsuit, a maxi dress, or any outfit that reaches the mid-calf to the ankles.
Typical styling calls for the abaya to remain open, but some individuals do style it differently, such as using a clasped object like a pin or broach to close it. Others may tie a sash to hold it closed. In a similar garment, the chador, a woman typically holds it closed with her hand.
Its light materials of cotton or silk make it easy to layer. The abaya comes in solids and prints.
Since a burqa comes as a one-piece garment, it requires little styling. If you’re in a hurry, it provides the Islamic fashion equivalent of the Western shift dress or caftan. You pull it on over your head, and you’re done.
You can add your own touches to a burqa. Some individuals do add to the onesie-style garment by layering an abaya over it. Most commonly, women wear an everyday outfit beneath the burqa, only pulling it on over their existing outfit to go out into public. Under the burqa, most women under 50 wear slacks or jeans with a t-shirt or other tops.
Islamic law only requires women to dress in a burqa-type garment when outside the home or in the presence of men not part of their nuclear family. That means that around the house, especially for women who live alone, women wear the same outfits as Western women.
While any shoes could match these outfits, especially the typically all-black burqa, women in the Middle East typically wear flats with them. This comes from practicality, not custom.
Because donning the burqa means the woman will go out in public to run errands, attend school, go to work, etc., people tend to choose flats or sneakers. These shoe styles offer walking comfort. Going grocery shopping in many areas of the Middle East means walking to an open-air market and shopping at a few vendors to obtain the week’s groceries. Just as Western women wear sneakers or flats for this purpose, so do Islamic women.
Conversely, when wearing an abaya, the woman does so to “dress up” an everyday outfit. Depending on whether you wear it with a pantsuit or dress, you would pair flats or high heels with it, respectively.
Shop Modest Eve to find abayas, burqas, and hijabs that keep you at the fashion forefront. Dressing with modesty when out in public does not have to mean boring outfits lacking in color.
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