The Various Phases of the Shiite Abaya: The Najafi overcame the Persian, and Lebanon created the Zainabiyah

Badia Fahs
Lebanese Writer and Researcher
November 3, 2017
It is hard to spot the difference among kinds of cloaks (Abayas) across the Shiite communities (Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon). A sideline observer might think that the black abaya is the same across all of these communities. However, the fact is not only each abaya of the three communities functionally has its own social specificity, cultural identity, and political aspect; but there are also several, huge, and noticeable differences in its style (Sewing).

It is hard to spot the difference among kinds of cloaks (Abayas) across the Shiite communities (Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon). A sideline observer might think that the black abaya is the same across all of these communities. However, the fact is not only each abaya of the three communities functionally has its own social specificity, cultural identity, and political aspect; but there are also several, huge, and noticeable differences in its style (Sewing).

According to the historical narratives, abaya had a presence in Iran and Iraq prior to religion (Islam). It had gone through different social and cultural changes and transformations, before it gradually has become a religious symbol.  After abaya had been considered a traditional costume in Iran for example, it gained a political Shiite feature. While its legacy as a unique identity in Iraq has not given up its status in favor of being a religious intersectarian symbol.  The only-black appearance, especially in those two countries, later expressed many features and aspects ranging from social and historical miseries to declaration of a political identity.

While the Shiite community in Lebanon was the only, amongst the three communities, that loaned abaya, recently, and with its only-black colour. This doesn’t mean that Shiite female community in Lebanon has never been exposed to black abaya over the course of history. Instead, the current widespread presence of abaya was not at the same level of popularity. As it moved through  wives of religious figures who used to headto al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya in Najaf seeking Islamic Shiite studies. It became soon after a special costume for sisters of “Hezbollah Women’s directorates”.

At present, women’s cloaks, or abayas, in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon are almost identical in one thing: their color is black, but they differ in many ways.

The Iraqi cloak claims its primacy in religious symbolism and its keenness to observe what is permissible, forbidden, recommendable and detested, in addition to the method of sewing, the width of the fabric and its blackness. The Iranian abaya is considered short of meeting the legitimate requirements.

The Iranian abaya is trying to compensate for its “deficiency” by the invasion of the lives of Iraqi women, and replacing their traditional cloak in their souls, on grounds of its convenience and low cost compared to the cost of the Iraqi abaya.

As for the Lebanese abaya, which is a combination of the two abayas, it has reached a level of religious exaggeration that makes it consider the other two distorted images of the required Islamic dress.

Then there is the Najafi cloak. Originally, the color of the abaya was white, but it turned black after the Mongols burnt Baghdad. The white abaya embroidered with flowers of bright colors was the costume of the women of Baghdad, but they replaced it by black in their grief over their city. This is what the historical narrative says.

The same story may apply to the Najafi cloak, and the blackness of the Najafi cloak may be associated with events prior to the Mongol invasion, namely to the Karbala incident, as an expression of sorrow over the killing of Imam Hussein ibn-Ali, the grandson of the Prophet, in the Battle of Tuf.

In both cases, there are no religious roots to the blackness of the abaya, but it was associated with the cloak as a declaration of sorrow, caused by bloody historical events.

Attributing the description “Najafi” to the abaya has a reason: Najaf is characterized by two religious characteristics: the shrine of Imam Ali ibn-Abutalib (the first Imam of the Twelve Shiite Imams) , and the Hawzah; the religious school that educates Shiite religious scholars. In other words, it is the religious and spiritual capital of Shiites in the world.

Abaya as a cultural identity

Abaya is a cultural identity of Najaf, in which traditions and social customs are consistent with religious laws. It is not an option, but a religious duty, a social custom, to which the inhabitants of the Holy City are committed, whatever social class they belong to, and whatever cultural background they come from. Commitment to wearing the abaya must be accompanied by a change in many customs, behaviors and manifestations, starting with the selection of cloth, length, width, the method of sewing and embroidery, even the clothes worn under it, the shoes and socks that go with it, the face veil, the low voice, avoiding male gatherings and the slow, upright gait.

The abaya has its own rituals, which are no less important than wearing it, and must be observed. It is an expression of the concept of the religious class system, which characterized the free women from the bondswomen in earlier Islamic eras. In the Najaf community, it is considered one of the features distinguishing wealthy women and wives of scholars from ordinary women, and at the same time proof of their modesty.

The rituals accompanying the abaya begin with the quality of the chosen fabric, as it should not be transparent nor glossy. The fabric shows the social level of the person wearing abaya. Silk, whether French or Indian, is a precious commodity that only the wives of merchants, financiers, and women of prominent clans enjoy. The women of the middle class prefer the Georgette, the Crepe and the Turkish silk, while the tetron and habar fabrics indicate the rural origins of the person wearing them.

The cloaks vary in the quality of their fabric, but the method of tailoring is the same. It is not permissible for it to be less than seven meters, for a short woman, and not more than eight for the tall. The cloth is cut in a circular way into two halves, the upper half includes the sleeves, and the lower half is made of a double layer of the same fabric, to give weight to the cloak, so as not be raised by a blowing wind.

The abaya is decorated with embroidery, starting from the sides of the face, along the sleeves and around the wrists, depending on the financial status of the owner. The wealthy ladies decorate them with gold chains hanging on either side of the face, or expensive golden yarns called “Calbedon”. The wives of scholars prefer the soft black “Shiraza”, while the rural or the poor women do not care about these luxuries.

Women in abayas are not compelled to cover their faces, whether they are from a rich or poor environment, while women of religious families are not exempted from this obligation. They cover their faces with “Fushiya”, distinguishing them from other women. “Fushiya” is a black transparent cloth that resembles a veil. The rural women also have their own characteristics, the “shawl”. The Najafi “shawl” is a thick black cloth which rural women wrap around the forehead from one end, while hanging the other end to cover the neck and chest. They are not keen on closing their cloaks from the front, it stays open, regardless of what might appear beneath it.

There are no specific conditions for what is worn under the abaya. Women wear whatever models and colors they like, but the conditions apply to what is not obscured by the abaya. Makeup and perfumes are forbidden, and feet must be covered with thick black socks. The shoes should not be high-heeled and should not produce any sounds, women should not sway or run, or make any noise while walking. They should not speak loudly, and should avoid male gatherings.

The Iranian Chador

Originally, the chador is a traditional costume, known in Persia since ancient times. It appeared in the central regions of Iran, which is home to Persian nationalism. It is one piece of fabric cut in half-circle, with no sleeves, no buttons, no other additives, placed on the head, covering the whole body, and left open from the front. If a woman wearing it is preoccupied with something, she wraps it around her waist, and takes her hands out from underneath, without paying attention to what might appear from her charms or the colors of her clothes. It is thus very similar to the Egyptian wrap cloak.

In its national beginnings, the chador was not black, it came in bright colors, sometimes as bright as red and yellow. During the reign of the Persian Empire, the chador and its color indicated social class. The one-color embroidered silk chador was for women of the ruling class, and the multi-colored cotton chador was for the ordinary women.

With the spread of Shiism in Iran in the Safavid era, the chador turned black, and began to take on a religious character, but in specific places, such as the city of Mashhad, where the tomb of Imam Ali Reza (eighth Shiite Imam), and the city of Qom, famous for its religious school which competes with the school of Najaf, and contains the shrine of Infallible Fatima, sister of Imam Reza. Nevertheless, many women in these two cities kept on wearing the colored chador.

Until the modern era, the years of the Pahlavi Dynasty, the moral value of the chador has declined, in the face of the modernization, and the removal of the veil imposed by Reza Shah, the father of Mohammad Reza Shah, who was deposed by the Islamic Revolution. The chador then turned into a traditional costume used by rural women.

In the period leading up to the victory of the Islamic revolution in Iran, the Iranians have recognized the importance of the chador as one of the methods of challenging the Shah’s rule. This period saw an ideological brainwash for women of all age groups. The black chador spread heavily even in the countryside.

After the victory of the revolution and the establishment of Islamic rule, the reasons for wearing the chador were reduced, and the Iranians returned to their former customs, the rural women to the colored chador. As for those who were shocked by the Islamization of the revolution and the society, they abandoned the chador, but they adhered to the Islamic hijab rules imposed by the revolutionary constitution. The religious people kept the black chador.

The chador in Iran has historical and cultural ties to the countryside and Persian nationalism, and was not considered a religious garment, but the revolution gave it this attribute. It has become a political identity, reflecting the support of the person wearing it towards the Islamic system of government, so the ordinary Iranian women call the black-chador-wearing women “Hezbollah”.

Modernism as politics intervened with the chador. The fashion houses which offer bold models of the modern veil in the Iranian capital of Tehran, added to the black chador sleeves, embroidery and lace, so as not to impede the movement of women, and it became desirable even for the religious.

The Iranian Islamic Revolution has caused a political earthquake in the region, and at the same time has caused a cultural earthquake in Shiite communities. Chador was one of the forms of the cultural earthquake that hit the Shiite strongholds in the world. It invaded the Iraqi women’s society, as well as the Lebanese women’s society. However, it quickly regressed by the creation of the Zainabiyah cloak.

The Zainabiyah

Before the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Islamic veil was not widespread in the Shiite community in Lebanon. The women covered their hair with white napkins, according to custom. The girls either went with their head uncovered, or wore a transparent, colored cloth, tied from the back, barely covering anything. The abaya was mainly for women who come from religious families  living in Najaf.

With the expansion of the concepts of the revolution towards the societies of the region, the hijab has spread throughout our communities. With the emergence of Islamist movements and political parties supported by Iran later, the black abaya replaced the hijab.

In the beginning, the women were fascinated by the Iranian chador, so they began to wear it, but soon discovered that it was impractical because it had no sleeves, making them forced to hold on to it shoulders all the time. However, to avoid political confusion, they did not wear the Najaf cloak instead. They even designed a abaya of their own, by combining the sleeves from the traditional Najaf cloak, and the width of the fabric from the Iranian chador.

Lebanon has its own abaya

Lebanese Shiite women have their own abaya now. The term ‘Zainabiyah’ was mentioned by the Ashoura councils, and women who wear it are referred to as “Zainbiyat”.

The qualities that must be available in the Zainabiyah are: to be black, of course, meet the legitimate requirements in length and width, free of embroidery, its fabric should neither be shiny nor transparent, nor should it stick to the body while walking, tightly closed from the front, unlike the chador and the Najafi cloak, attached to the head by a knot from the inside.

The Zainabiyah cloak also has important attachments: the handkerchief, which should be black, with no embroidery, it is to be pinned around the chin and pulled from the top to cover the eyebrows. The wrist covers, an additional sleeve worn under the sleeve of the abaya, its function is to cover the wrists in case the woman raises her arms and the abaya recedes showing her wrists. The woman should not wear colored clothes, skirts, dresses or tight pants under her cloak, may be some of it will show, which would be a sin. She has to wear long black trousers, a loose black shirt, thick black socks, and a light black shoe that does not produce a sound upon hitting the ground. She should also use black purses, not colored ones.

In the pamphlets distributed by the Zainbiyat, in order to encourage full adherence to the conditions of the Zainbiyah, the message of encouragement addresses the “Fatimiyah” Sister!

One of the publications says: “My dear “Fatimiyah” sister, crowned with her Zainabiyah cloak …Before leaving your home, look in the mirror and ask: Is the Zahra’s eye satisfied with this garment? Is this cloak similar to her cloak ?. If the answer is yes, congratulations to you. If not, then set yourself up to make your cloak Zainabiyah from now on.”

I searched, and I asked about this confusion, is the abaya Zainabiyah or Fatimiyah? The answer was: “Zainab clung to her cloak on the day of Ashura, despite the beatings she suffered at the hands of the soldiers of Yazid ibn-Mu’awiyah. The eyes of her mother, Fatima al-Zahra’, followed her and weeped for her, but she was happy that her daughter remained steadfast. We too have to rejoice the heart of Fatima al-Zahra’ when she looks upon us, by following the footsteps of her daughter.”

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