• Stephanie Drax

Lifting the Veil: Fashion & Modesty in the Middle East

Joana Mollet is an artist and mother of two small children. She has been living in Muscat, Oman since 2013.

When I tell people I live in Oman, the first question they ask me (after “Where? Amman?” -  "No. O-man") is:

“Can you wear what you like?”

The short answer is basically “yes”, given that my mini skirt days are (sadly) behind me...Dress code is conservative but there are no official restrictions. You're expected to cover up when visiting mosques and official buildings but there are places where your teeny bikini won't raise an eyebrow. Just be prepared to be swimming next to someone in this year's speedo burk-ini.

In Oman, if you’re underdressed, no one will arrest you, but a “nice” lady might come up to you, pat your inappropriately exposed shoulder and say “what a lovely dress you are wearing”. That’s definitely happened a couple of times (and everyone gets it wrong at some point.)

But I guess what people are really asking is - what do local ladies wear? There’s a perception that all women in the Middle East are wrapped up to the eyelashes in black and in some countries, they practically are.

In Oman, you get a mixed bag. It’s the liquorice all-sorts of conservative women’s attire: from full-face veils and traditional masks to uncovered heads and trendy mismatched layers, belts and turbans. In Muscat, as in any city, the healthy obsession with shoes and handbags is alive and well.

So let me pull back the veil on the veil in daily life in the Sultanate:

The full-face veil (Burka): I’m talking about a gossamer-thin black veil worn over a full-length abaya (robe). It’s actually pretty rare to see this. A ghostly black figure glides towards you at the mall. Tantalisingly, you can actually see the contours of her face and you just can’t help stealing a stare to see what’s underneath.

The Niqab: A thicker face veil with the eyes peeping out. Nothing new there, plenty of those on Shepherd’s Bush Road. More common but still rare.

The Hijab headscarf: Most women go for this and it comes in loads of styles and colours. The scarf covers the hair and neck but leaves the face clear. Some women wear it tightly secured around the head with a pin and spend hours fiddling, constantly tucking it in, others take just let it float on their heads, styled locks of luscious hair showing. It’s worn with a full-length (usually black) abaya robe or with trendy but conservative western clothes.

The Batoola or Burka mask: Truly traditional, you’ll see these worn by Bedouin tribeswomen and in rural communities. Handmade in leather it’s said to emulate a falcon’s beak. Up close and personal, on the ferry to Masirah, we sit together in the segregated “family cabin” pretending not to stare at each other. Make no mistake, we look as outlandish to them as they do to us: out come the mobiles wedged between the seats to snap a pic of blue eyes and pink faces.

The “Moustache” mask:  If you’re really lucky, you might spot one of these. This Batoola has a thin copper strip running over the nose, forming an exquisite moustache above the lip that would put Poirot to shame.

Accessories: Did I mention the obsession with shoes and handbags? In a world where many women choose to robe up in black, accessories become the focus of individuality. Handbags take up a hefty part of the budget: Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Prada swing from shoulders all over the sultanate. And there’s no mistaking what 6 inch studded heels flashing under a black hemline is saying: “I’m covered - but hey! I’m a sexy woman!”

A lorra lorra make-up: Similarly, make-up and nails are huge. HUGE. After all, if you’re only showing your face and your hands you’d better make it count.

The great unveiling:  Lastly, it’s worth remembering women only cover up in public, which includes if there’s a guy around who ain’t your husband, dad or brother. Given that the whole issue of covering up is based on your interpretation of Hijab (modesty), women can wear any kind of ‘modest’ dress they choose.

So yessome women don’t cover their hair or wear abayas over their clothes. Not many, but an ever-growing number. But while glossy black manes flow freely, sleeves remain long to the wrist and an ankle is risqué…even if it does sneak out every once in a while.

Follow Joana on Instagram @thedesertpaintbox to see more of her life and work in Oman