An abaya is a cloak worn by Muslim women in public to protect their modesty. Exactly what constitutes an abaya varies in different locations. They may be just a cape or they may have sleeves. The abaya in Saudi Arabia is a long black robe that covers the head and body, something like the Iranian chador. Abayas in the United Arab Emirates can be "placed on the shoulder or pulled over the back of the head, which is usually the way it is worn by older women." In North Africa, the word seems to mean a non-hooded cloak. Abayas can be decorated in some places; they are often embroidered at the hem. An abaya is not a face veil, although many are sold with matching scarves which can be used to cover the hair or face.

A pilot in the U.S. Air Force sued the Secretary of Defense because, while stationed in Saudi Arabia, women were required by U.S. military rules to wear a Saudi abaya when not on base. After this suit, female members of the U.S. military are merely "strongly encouraged," rather than required, to wear the abaya when off-base in civilian clothes, as of January 2002, but some Saudis are displeased that it is no longer required. (However, Saudi law does not require that foreign women wear the abaya in public.)

Sources:
Martha Kirk, Green Sands: My Five Years In The Saudi Desert, Lubbock, Texas: Texas Tech University Press, 1994.
http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Jan2002/n01232002_200201232.html
http://www.saudinf.com/main/q031.htm
http://www.ecssr.ac.ae/Land/costum.html
http://www.saudiembassy.net/publications/Magazine-Summer-01/Dress.htm
http://www.buffalonews.com/editorial/20020125/1003457.asp
http://www.alhediya.com/gulabwitslee.html
http://www.geocities.com/khrn00/veil.htm

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