The abaya is a traditional garment which is often seen today as an *Islamic* dress. For a universal religion like Islam (unlike some culture-specific religions like Sikhism) abaya would be restrictively monolithic. But historically speaking abaya is no more Islamic than a kundoora or thob.
Islam came to the Bedouins of Arabia and obviously it came to people who dressed in a specific manner. To demand that all Muslims wear what those Bedouins wore to look Muslim and feel Muslim is imprisoning the colourful spirit of Islam more so because those Bedouins never wore an abaya or even the modern headscarf.
Historically both men and women wore headgears probably as protection against harsh weather conditions much before Islam came to Arabia. Elite Jewish women veiled their faces revealing only one eye (the evil left one to see their way) because they were too good to be seen by the mortal eyes.
Both men and women wore an outer garment much like the contemporary bisht. Jewish men and women clothes differed from one another because Jewish laws like Muslim laws forbid men and women to wear similar clothes. Ancient Hebrew garments for both men and women consisted of the Inner Garment, the Outer Tunic or Robe, the Girdle, the Outer Garment or Mantle, and the Headdress. The girdles were sometimes made of silk which was then prohibited for Muslim men. The outer garment (kesut in Hebrew and khumur in Arabic) had different styles for men and women. All outer garments were long to reach the ankles and had a hood for women or ended at the middle of the calf for men which continued in Islam as the sitr for men. A picture in this link shows typical ancient Jewish garments for women between the 4th and the 6th AD.
However, the pagan women often either wore deep necklines with open collars or left their breasts bare. In contemporary times this seems ridiculous, but there was nothing abnormal about such practices in ancient Arabia, both before and after Islam. Arabian prostitutes particularly covered their faces (to maintain anonymity) but left their chests bare (to show the ‘goods’) as can be seen from the famous painting of Tamar and Judah. Similarly another painting shows Minoan women with bare chests comfortably playing a board game.
It is almost impossible to replicate the exact clothing of pre and early Islamic Arabia but historical studies suggest they were indeed very different from contemporary clothing and are sometimes incomprehensible because we cannot imagine the complexities of what a garment entailed for men and women. For illustrative purposes, you can watch this very interesting short clip which shows a Palestinian woman putting on a traditional Arab dress in 1920. After almost 90 years Palestinian women today wear very different clothes which are hardly as complicated. Imagine how different clothes must have been 1400 years ago.
What we know for certainty is that both men and women wore long robes and some sort of head covering which was traditional/cultural rather than religious. For example, Jewish men and women covered their heads according to Jewish law (laws related to ancient Jewish cultural practices) rather than Torah law (laws related to practices as laid down by the Torah).
Look at this picture of 20th century Bedouin women. All women loosely cover their hair indicating a cultural practice rather than strict law that not a strand of hair must be visible. Or this one in which women wear their hair like horns and keep them uncovered. When Islam came to Arabia, Arabs continued benign cultural practices and some religious practices which were beneficial to society, building new religious norms in the process which are now called Islamic practices. What we fail to accept and realise today is that Islam did not come out of nothing. It is a practical religion which modified the ways of life that already existed in Arabia. By no means did Islam declare that all pagan, Christian and Jewish practices were immediately invalid, but those practices were continuously revised and modified.
Elite Jewish women who converted to Islam were allowed to keep veiling their faces so that they did not suddenly feel odd about moving within the society with uncovered faces. But they were prohibited from veiling their faces while praying or doing umra/Haj because in the eyes of Allah all are equal whether they are slaves or the elite. The revelation for women to cover came down in Medina after interaction with the rich Jews of the city and it must have given the new Muslim women a sense of pride to cover themselves like the elite Jewish Arabs “so that they may be recognised.”
It is a known fact that slave women were neither allowed to cover their faces (even if they were Muslim) like the elite women, nor were they allowed to wear the khumar (or the outer garment) so as to be recognized as slaves and not be confused as free women. They of course tied their hair whichever way their found comfortable and wore tunics to cover their chests. Some slaves didn’t even cover their breasts. Men, too, continued to cover their heads and even faces during sand storms (there is evidence that suggests that even the Prophet covered his face at times).
What Islam strongly prohibited (and which came as a Quranic law) was for free Muslim women to expose their breasts which was a common pagan practice. Many pagan female idols were created with large bare breasts and women are documented to have exposed their chests to cheer pagan soldiers going to war and while circumambulating the pre-Islamic Kaaba which housed their idols. Women also commonly uncovered their chests inside their homes. By the 16th and 17th centuries Muslim women in Spain had already started wearing what closely resembles the Iranian chador as seen in the “Conversion of the Moors” sculpture at the Cathedral of Granada.
All women in ancient Arabia wore some sort of outer garment called khumar while in public. I believe that the Islamic law is for a woman to use that garment to cover her chest – her “adornments”. Wearing some sort of headcovering is an Arabian cultural practice which existed before Islam and continued even afterwards. While urban Muslim men have modified their clothing and no more wear the headcovering or difficult and volumous robes, for some reason women are not allowed similar choices.
It is important for Muslim women to wear modest clothes so that they do not attract undue attention. That is an Islamic obligation. But now that Islam is no more confined to Arabia, that modest garment does not have to Arabic and certainly does not have to be monolithic.
What do you think? What are your views about hijab?