Colombo Telegraph

Cultural Invasion – In The Wake Of The Abaya

By Mass L. Usuf

Mass L. Usuf

Man in Buddhism is analysed into five aggregates or existences known as pañcupadānakkhandhā. One of which is the aggregate of perception (saññā). Perception arises from form (rūpa). The path leading to the cessation of wrong perception is the noble eightfold path i.e., right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

In several fora on multi-culturalism and co-existence even recently, I have noticed people curious about the prevalence of the black abaya clad women in our streets. Applying the buddhistic principle of perception (saññā) and form (rūpa), I was imagining what the perception would be if the ‘abaya’ is worn in yellow or orange colour.

As a youngster, in the 1960s, I cannot recollect an instance of seeing a Muslim woman wearing the black Abaya or the Niqab in Sri Lanka. The words Abaya and Niqab are Arabic words. Abaya means, a cloak or a loose over garment covering the body except the face, wrists and feet. Niqab means, a veil. A piece of cloth that covers the full face or the face except the two eyes.

The attire of the Muslim woman of the yesteryears was generally, the Shalwar Kameez. A predominantly South Asian dress with pantaloons or long trousers and a shirt. This comes with an accessory, the dupatta, a multi purpose long shawl. The Kameez would extend beyond the elbows almost reaching the wrists. And the trouser worn loose and baggy would conceal the shape of the woman wearing it. The hair on the head would be covered by wearing the shawl over the head and the cloth flowing over the bosom. Or, one who wears the saree, would extend a portion of the saree to cover the head.


During the early 1970s, the world witnessed a phenomenon of oil exports by Saudi Arabia, Iran and other middle east countries. The era of petrodollar had dawned. Ibrahim Oweiss a Professor of Economics at Georgetown University in Washington first coined the word, “petrodollar” in order to cater to the new phenomenon of excess dollar movement not forming part of the money supply of the exporting countries.

With the advent of petrodollars industrialization and luxury lifestyle dominated the socio-economic landscape of these countries. The Arab who once took pride over his ship of the desert abandoned it for motorised vehicles. Folks who used to preserve meat using bee’s honey opted to use the refrigerator. The economic transformation through massive industrialization ran parallel to the metamorphosing of the bedouin existence into a modern lifestyle. Of course, many countries of the world benefited by this change. Employment opportunities were in abundance be it for professionals, skilled, semi-skilled, unskilled and also for housemaids. At any given time citizens of more than 50 to 75 countries were benefitting from this black gold revenues. Sri Lanka was no exception.

According to the Ministry of Foreign Employment in the year 2012 a whopping 119,000 females had gone abroad to work as housemaids. The year ending 2014 recorded a total of 300,413 Sri Lankan migrant workers, both male and female. Of this total, 88,661 had gone as housemaids. The Central Bank Annual report 2014 estimated migrant remittances at USD 6.7 billion. An extension of the Arab metamorphosisation has long been seen in Sri Lanka too. Those who earned the petrodollars have built houses for themselves and equipped their houses also with modern electrical gadgets. Many have even migrated to the developed world evidencing the petrodollars earned as assets.

Abaya and Housemaids

The traditional dress of the Arab women was the Abaya. This is in compliance with a Quranic command for women to cover themselves. The Quran states :

“O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters, and the believing women, to cover themselves with a loose garment…….”. Qur’an 33:59

Since the woman should not dress in a manner that would attract the undue attention of strangers of the opposite sex, they used to wear it in black colour. I am reminded of the sil mathawo who would wear covering the body with pure white dress. Or, even the bhikkhunī (Buddhist nun) who would cover herself fully with the robe. Only the wrists, feet, face and head are exposed. There is no need to cover the head as it is shaven and thus no beauty to behold. They do wear only in one unattractive plain colour, yellow or orange. Certain Christian orders wear the White Coif, the garment’s headpiece and the Tunic, a loose dress made of black serge fabric or white covering her body. In other words, the women be they Buddhists, Muslims or Christians are all protecting their modesty and displaying simplicity. If viewed without prejudice, they are all wearing the abaya. Some Arab women wore the niqab as part of their individual preference for greater modesty. The niqab incidentally, is not a religious edict unlike the Abaya.

Sri Lankans, Muslims or non Muslims, who had been for employment to the Middle-east would have witnessed the culture of modesty. Our housemaids who went to work also had to follow the same rules of modesty. Therefore, they too had to wear covering their bodies irrespective of their religious convictions. The principle being modesty is universal for every human being and all religions preach the ethics of modesty. The Muslims among migrant women who returned to Sri Lanka continued wearing the black abaya. They bring the same abaya as presents for their sisters and other female relatives. Since the trend is black abaya, even the local Sri Lankan shops had to market the black abaya.

Today, instead of the old shalwar kameez and the dupatta, it is common to see the black abaya. It has become more conspicuous too because of its colour. The shalwar kameez is worn in a multitude of colours. Moreover, even those who are not Muslims do wear the shalwar kameez. Thus no bias created on first sight. Buddha’s analysis of form and perception holds very true in this context.

Eightfold path

Hejab or covering, is a rule applicable to both man and woman in Islam. Interestingly, it has in it embedded the application of the eightfold path, aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo. The hejab in Islam is not the physical covering only, it also extend to right view, right speech, right action and so on.

Way back in 11 March 2014 the Colombo Telegraph filed a report under the heading, “School Principal Ignores Governor’s Orders; Bans Punjabi And Makes Students Worship”. The heading itself should give some understanding of the report to the discerning mind. There is a misunderstanding and a wrong perception about the abaya. Evidently, some aggressively misinterpreted it as a cultural invasion threatening the existence of the Sinhala race and Buddhism. Consequently, innocent young girls were not allowed to enter school with their traditional Punjabi dresses. They had to remove the shawl and fold the trouser up to the knee when inside the school. Incredibly, all this happening in violation of Education Ministry Circulars and Supreme Court orders.

The worsening of this situation was when even parents who were wearing the abaya were banned from entering the school premises. The pretext is that the school is a Buddhist school. Janadhipathi Balika Vidyalaya, is a case in point against which a Fundamental rights petition was filed in the Supreme Court. There have been several instances where in some government hospitals Muslim women were not allowed to wear only the shawl covering their heads. Even today these practices are continuing. As humans let us learn to put a cessation to this wrong perception.


The Buddha described each group in the pañcupadānakkhandhā as being connected with the āsavas. A āsava is a taint, corruption, intoxicant, or bias. There are four āsavas, namely that of sense desire (kāmāsavā), desire for existence (bhavāsavā), wrong views (diṭṭhāsava), and ignorance (avijjāsavā). It is very clear that the diṭṭhāsava and avijjāsavā viz. wrong views and ignorance is the main cause of this misunderstanding and misconception.

Finally, I reiterate, the Buddhist teaching of the noble eightfold path to those who harbour hatred towards another human being.

Sabbe sattā sukhi hontu, “May all beings be well (or happy)”.

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