Creative The Identity Issue

The day I was called out for wearing an “abaya”

How was I going to convince them that I wasn't oppressed?

By Aleya

Artwork by Lebanese illustrator Nour Flayhan. Nour was born and raised in Kuwait.

This story is brought to you by Dr. Rocco’s Specialized Dental Center in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

“Well, you walk in here everyday wearing your abaya [black cloak], of course the people seeing you will have questions and concerns!”

Last year, I moved to a city thousands of miles away from home to complete my postgraduate studies in a Western country. The first few weeks started off like they would for any young woman in a new city:  I was lost and very confused.  I tried my best to get used to the environment and the people around me. As a Muslim, I was also very mindful of the fact that I was almost always the only person on the train with a headscarf on. 

But, to my surprise, settling in was not as challenging as I had imagined it would be. I did not get odd looks here and there when I walked into a store, nor did I encounter any form of racial profiling for my modest attire. People saw me for who I was rather than what covered my head or hid my figure. It was a grand culture shock, as you always hear people saying this or that about the horrifying racist incidents they encounter during their time abroad. I felt reassured and spent my first year in complete ease. I was even far more active in my new community than I had anticipated. 

Towards the end of my first year, I received an email inviting me to take part in a four-day leadership conference at my university. I saw an opportunity and took it; it’s not everyday that you get called up for things like this as a student.

“As a Muslim, I was also very mindful of the fact that I was almost always the only person on the train with a headscarf on.”

The first half of the first day at the conference went smoothly. I met very inspiring individuals and felt comfortable in my own skin —something I hardly ever feel when I’m in social situations. 

After the first break of the evening, we all came back into the lecture hall for a discussion about cultural intelligence led by two individuals from the program. And, of course, the one topic that was on everyone’s mind was the grand effort that many have to make to be culturally intelligent about Middle Eastern countries and Islam. It seems that whenever I hear about cultural intelligence, someone is bound to use these as examples. I silently hoped that the topic of women in the Middle East would not be opened because how was I going to convince a room of almost 200 people that what you read in the media is nothing close to the truth? How was I going to convince the girl sitting next to me that I’m not “oppressed” for choosing to cover my head? 

But, my hopes were shattered in a matter of seconds. 

One of the speakers began talking about her journey through cultural intelligence after her very “shocking” visit to a Middle Eastern country in the 1980’s. She confidently spoke of her disagreement with the “ideas of their religion” and how appalled she was that women were “forced to wear abayas”.

Not much cultural intelligence there, I thought to myself.

I was frustrated and very mindful of all the eyes on me, as I was the only woman in the conference with a headscarf on. My mind was rushing through a million thoughts and I could not get myself to think clearly. I took the night to calm down, because heaven knows I say the worse things when I’m upset.

By the next day, I was far more relaxed and ready to tackle the issue head on. I arranged my thoughts and walked into the lecture hall with full confidence. I was ready to face her and clarify all of her misconceptions.

“I silently hoped that the topic of women in the Middle East would not be opened because how was I going to convince a room of almost 200 people that what you read in the media is nothing close to the truth?”

I managed to catch her during our first break and took her to the side to speak privately about the matter. Initially, I was very happy with her responses and how respectful she was of my opinions. I thought I had managed to get a positive message across. I thanked her for her time and explained to her how hopeful I was that the students joining us in the conference would be more aware and informed of my culture and religion before making inaccurate remarks.

I wish I could say that the conversation ended there, but she crushed all my expectations when she casually said, “Well, you walk in here everyday wearing your abaya, of course the people seeing you will have questions and concerns!”

For the next half hour my mind was completely blank.

The weather that week was horrible and full of surprises. It had been raining for days on end with no signs of stopping. Because of that, I happened to arrive to the conference hall every morning wearing a black raincoat.

Aleya is a civil engineer from the city of Abu Dhabi.