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When I lived in Bahrain in the late 1970s and through the 1980s, I thought Muslim women were steadily evolving away from the covered heads and black cloaks (abayas) of earlier decades. I almost never saw someone with a veil over her face.
True, the Khomeini Revolution forced Iranian women back into black covering from head to foot, but even in Iran, faces-without the forbidden makeup-were unveiled.
When I returned to Bahrain in 2006, after 16 years away, I found the changes in dress startling. Not more modern, as I would have predicted in the 80s, but distinctly more traditional. In the malls, almost all women wore the ankle length black abaya, but its style had changed. No longer a cape that covered the head and extended over the body, the abaya had transitioned to a black, ankle-length dress, supplemented by a black head covering that often included a veil over the face.
Although former students told me that many of the veiled women were from Saudi Arabia, now easily accessible over the causeway that connected the two countries, many Bahrainis dressed the same. "Why the change?" I asked in every conversation.
Diverse explanations were proposed, but all centered on the fact that Muslims felt their faith to be threatened, and dress became a way of affirming their Muslim identity.
Some suggested that the Khomeini Revolution, the Afghan-Soviet conflict, or the Gulf War of 1990 had triggered the concern. Others proposed that the changing role of women, with much greater involvement in higher education and employment, led them to choose conservative dress to demonstrate that a change in life style was not a rejection of the faith.
I returned in 2009 wondering if the trend toward traditional dress had intensified. It had not. Perhaps not enough time has passed for a definite conclusion, but my impression is that fewer women veil their faces and the abaya has become a more fashionable outer covering. The cover picture for my book was taken this year and although most of the girls wear an abaya, it is not the traditional sleeveless cape. Wide, embroidered sleeves are clearly visible. Most of the women wear a black scarf over their hair but in the background are several with uncovered heads and no abaya. This is also what I observed on the street and shops.
Unlike Iran or Saudi Arabia, Bahrain has no laws regulating women's dress. The pressure to conform to what others are wearing, felt by women everywhere, has a major role in determining dress in Bahrain. Probably the choices are more complex there because of the tension between religiously backed tradition and newer trends that assert a changed role for women.
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