Arts & Culture

Emirati women’s dress colors: More than black

This Emirati photographer captures the brilliant colors of Emirati women wearing traditional dresses.


By Amna Alharmoodi

Fatma Ali Abed’s photography frequently depicts women clad in colorful jalabiyas and household shailas. Image: Fatma Ali Abed.

The mainstream international media often depicts Emirati women clad in a black abaya and shaila. While our outerwear represents our religion and traditions specific to our region, there are more textiles and fabrics that we hold closer to our hearts and better represent our colorful customs and culture.

Fatma Ali Abed is a 24-year-old Emirati who translates “the beauty of our everyday” through the lens of her camera. Her photography frequently depicts women clad in jalabiyas, the traditional dress of women in the UAE (and other Gulf and Arab countries, in their own versions), and colorful household shailas. The subjects of her photographs include her sister, her nieces and her cousins. By using her family members as subjects, Fatma is allowing the viewer to enter an intimate space that is not often visible to the outside world.

24-year-old Emirati photographer Fatma Ali Abed is an architectural engineer by training. Image: courtesy.

In Arab societies, women are traditionally expected to be clad modestly in a fabric and cut that does not reveal or accentuate the shape of the body. Thus, Emirati women have turned to wearing the free flowing abaya in public, but jalabiyas are commonly worn in the private sphere. Fatma views the traditional dress, jalabiyas, as “represent[ative of] our identity as Arabs, especially [that of the] local women.” This idea of showing and inviting the viewer to see a more private side of Emirati women is what is alluring and special about Fatma’s work.

The subjects of Fatma’s photography are her female relatives. By using her family members as subjects, Fatma is allowing the viewer to enter an intimate space that is not often visible to the outside world. Image: Fatma Ali Abed.

In a world where Emirati women are often depicted as dressed in black abayas in public, Fatma is placing her camera and artistic focus on celebrating women in their traditional dresses, in their private spaces. When I ask her why not capture women in abayas, she replies, “I am not judging the abaya photographers out there, but I enjoy translating our culture in a more colorful way.” The young photographer opens up the dark exterior to reveal the kaleidoscope of colors of Emirati culture.

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“I enjoy translating our culture in a colorful way” says Fatma Ali Abed. Image: Fatma Ali Abed.

Most of the architectural engineer’s photographs are shot in historical buildings, including old forts, that Fatma frequents with her family. By combining historical structures and young women clad in vibrant colors and modern accessories, Fatma believes she is representing our constantly changing nation. Fatma explains that historical settings or backdrops “represent our culture in a modern manner, along with the beauty of our daily lifestyle.” Mixing the UAE’s past with its modern elements, Fatma feels that she is modestly capturing a day in her life.

By using historical structures as her backdrop , with young women clad in modern vibrant colors, Fatma Ali Abed says she is representing a constantly changing nation. Images: Fatma Ali Abed.

Fatma hopes that her photography will relay the message that, “It feels good
to be yourself.” She hopes that people do not shy away from representing their local
aesthetics and lifestyle to the world. In a world where many chase trends and the need to be viral, Fatma believes that one does not need to feel compelled to follow the new and trendy route. In fact, Fatma does not adhere to such a notion at all. She does not strive to fit her culture, or who she is, in a box. What she does instead is capture her surroundings and proudly state, “This is me, this is us.”

To see more of Fatma Ali Abed’s work, visit her Instagram page.

Amna Alharmoodi is an Emirati writer passionate about writing the hidden Emirati stories. She won second place in Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation (ADMAF) Annual Creativity Award in 2019 for her short story “Transit”, which she co-wrote. She has been published in the NYU Abu Dhabi literary magazine, Airport Road, the NYU literary journal, Brio and the Paris-based literary magazine Postscript. 

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