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What Is the Difference between an Abaya and a Jilbab?

An abaya is a flowing outer garment that covers the body, often paired with a headscarf, while a jilbab is a looser, overgarment, sometimes including a hood. Both are rooted in modesty but differ in style and cultural associations. To uncover the rich histories and evolving fashion statements behind these garments, let's explore their unique stories further.
Lainie Petersen
Lainie Petersen

The difference between an abaya and a jilbab depends, in part, on how these words are used. The term “jilbab” can refer to any loose outer garment that covers a woman and conceals her body shape. It is also sometimes used to describe a specific type of garment that looks like a long coat with buttons or a zipper down its front. The term “abaya” is often used to describe a type of covering often worn in Arab countries. It is typically loose and resembles a robe or caftan or a loose maxi-dress, although some clothing manufacturers and retailers may sell other styles as abayas. An abaya may also have a hood that provides extra coverage to its wearer’s head.

In Islam, both men and women are called to dress modestly. Women are generally expected to dress in a way that covers the body completely, with the exception of the hands, face, and in some cases the feet. In addition, the coverage must be significant enough to not reveal the shape of a woman’s body, something that both an abaya and a jilbab can offer. To achieve this level of modesty, many women choose to wear a garment, generically known as a jilbab, over their clothing when in pubic, though the exact style of jilbab may vary between cultures and the preferences of the women who choose to wear this type of covering.

A jilbab is designed to cover the entire body except for the hands, face, and feet.
A jilbab is designed to cover the entire body except for the hands, face, and feet.

Many sellers of Islamic clothing, particularly those in the West that need to accommodate immigrant customers who come from many different cultures, may make a firm distinction between an abaya and a jilbab in their catalogs. These companies may sell the former as a very loose cloak or robe that slips over and covers the head. The jilbab may be sold as something that resembles a coat, coatdress, or jacket.

Abayas may resemble caftans, loose-fitting robes worn by both men and women in parts of the Middle East.
Abayas may resemble caftans, loose-fitting robes worn by both men and women in parts of the Middle East.

In situations where a manufacturer does make this distinction between an abaya and a jilbab, customers may find a greater variation in the jilbab offerings. These garments may be high necked or they may have an open neck that would need to be covered by a shirt or head covering if worn in public. In addition, there is a wide range of jilbab designs available in many different fabrics, with some being made to resemble standard business suiting or even athletic clothing. Some companies may also sell a shorter jilbab that covers the wearer to only mid thigh, with the idea being that she will wear long, loose trousers or a skirt to provide proper coverage to the lower half of her body.

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Discussion Comments

anon330247

Great answer. Thank you! That makes a lot of sense and will help me in my shopping - especially online. Your response rings true with my experience and what I've received when I've purchased jilbabs and abayas. Now I know why the abayas I see never seem to have front closures.

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    • A jilbab is designed to cover the entire body except for the hands, face, and feet.
      By: Distinctive Images
      A jilbab is designed to cover the entire body except for the hands, face, and feet.
    • Abayas may resemble caftans, loose-fitting robes worn by both men and women in parts of the Middle East.
      By: Driving South
      Abayas may resemble caftans, loose-fitting robes worn by both men and women in parts of the Middle East.