In the Islamic world, it is often customary for women to wear an overgarment that covers almost all of the body. In countries on the Arabian Peninsula, this garment is known as an abaya. The abaya is typically black, and it drapes from the head or the shoulders down to the feet. In Saudi Arabia, where it is a law that women must cover themselves, the abaya is worn with the niqab, a veil that covers all parts of the head and face except for the eyes. The muttawa, or religious police, enforce the law and may punish a woman if she is seen without this covering.
Because the Quran states that women must dress modestly and cover themselves, the abaya has been an integral part of Arabian societies throughout history. The words of the Quran are up for interpretation, however, which may explain why some countries and regions are more strict about the wearing of the abaya than others. Some countries and regions allow for simple designs to be embroidered on abayat, but they are most commonly black and very simple. They are made out of light materials such as thin cotton, crepe, or even silk, and other colors of abayat can be worn as long as they do not attract unnecessary attention to the woman.
Abayat are not required by law in most Arab countries, yet women tend to wear them anyway. Again, this is because the Quran states that women must carry themselves with modesty; some women believe that they can show their modesty in other ways, and therefore do not wear abayat, but a high proportion of women wear the abaya to outwardly show their modesty, thereby keeping with their religious beliefs.
Abayat have become the subject of controversy in recent years. They were banned, along with the burqa, in France, and many other Western countries have discussed imposing a ban on the garments as well. The reasons for this ban vary, but the most common defense for the banishment of the garment is the argument that the abayat allows the wearer to hide weapons or other contraband. This notion was reinforced after several suicide attacks throughout the world that employed the use of the abaya or burqa to disguise weapons. In Western countries like the United States, women who wear the abaya may also become targets of hostility, as they are identified automatically as Muslims, and there is much tension and misunderstanding regarding the Muslim faith since the attacks on 11 September 2001.