What Men and Women Wear in the Middle East

Updated August 12, 2020.

It’s a very special What I Wore Wednesday! This week it’s not about what I would wear, but what the Qatari people traditionally wear. My trip to Qatar was fascinating, and I learned so much! One of the things that concerned me most was dressing appropriately, but I really had nothing to worry about. Qatar is the most open Arabic country, with over 80 countries able to visit on a completely free visa. Additionally, unlike some of the other Arabic countries, women are not required by law to dress in the traditional clothing.

Still, I wanted to know more about what Arabic people wear–is it really hot all covered like that? Do the men wear traditional clothing, too? How do I wrap that head scarf? So, my friends were gracious enough to dress me up and answer all my questions!


Many non-Muslims may believe that women who cover are oppressed and can’t wear anything they want, but that is absolutely the opposite of the truth! Muslim women dress very stylishly–much more stylishly than I do!–and many of them have fun doing gorgeous hair and makeup. My new friend Noor was kind enough to do my hair and makeup for these pictures!

You might think, “Why bother? No one will ever see!” But it’s important to know that they do not have to be covered at home or in the presence of other women. Honestly, it’s kind of fun that their husbands are the only non-family members who see them without being completely covered, and when the women get together, it’s always a party! Here are the pieces of clothing that Muslim women wear, with an explanation of each.

For starters, here is the whole get-up:

That’s me under there! You can’t tell because I am wearing more makeup than I’ve worn since Smith County High School Prom 2004!
More here: How to Embrace Cultural Differences

Abaya (“ah-bah-yah”): Floor-length Robe

The abaya is traditionally black, but I saw some that were gray, beige, navy, etc. All were neutral colors, as the point of covering is to not draw too much attention to oneself. But don’t be fooled! Upon a closer look, you’ll find beautiful embroidery, subtle tone-on-tone patterns, and even designer labels! The fabric is flowy and light, so the women can take advantage of a good breeze and keep cool, especially in the summer when temperatures can soar past 130 degrees Fahrenheit (55 degrees Celsius)!

You can wear anything under it!
Snap closure down the front.
Full coverage!
Designer brands!

Shayla (“shay-lah”): Neutral Head Covering Worn with the Abaya

The shayla is very important because Muslim women are to keep their hair covered in public. An abaya will often come with a matching shayla.

IMG_0126 2
With abaya.
Without abaya to show what it looks like on its own.

Hijab (“hih-job”): Head Covering Worn with Western-style Clothes

The hijab can be any color or any pattern, as long as it covers the hair. It is always worn with Western-style clothes instead of with an abaya. Many Muslim women in America choose to wear just the hijab, even when visiting predominantly Muslim countries like Qatar. This is my friend Janna! She is an American living in my hometown in Smith County, Tennessee, but she has a large family still living in Doha! She wears the hijab both at home and when she visits family in Doha.

Loving brother and sister, Mohammad and Janna!
More here: What to Pack for Qatar: Ladies

Burqa (bur-kah) or Niqab (“nee-cob”): Face Covering Revealing Only the Eyes

Fewer women choose to wear a face covering, but my friends let me try this one on for a photo! I was a little confused about what the name was, but my friend Shairfa told me the terms “burqa” and “niqab” are used interchangeably for this piece. It is always worn with the abaya and shayla, but I am only wearing this piece here so that you can see what it looks like on its own.

Burqa, revealing only the eyes.

There is also a piece called a Gushwa (“goo-shwah”) that also covers the eyes. Don’t worry–women who wear this can see! The fabric is very sheer. Most women wear only the shayla to cover their heads, but I did see several women with the burqa, and some women with the gushwa. The type of head covering a woman wears is the choice of the individual.

Palestinian Thobe (“thowb”): Palestinian Dress Closed in Front with Embroidery

Something else you may see in Qatar and other Arabic countries is the Palestinian thobe! The one below is black, but they could be red or white, or another color. And the embroidery can be any color as well. There are many people of Palestinian heritage in Qatar and throughout the Middle East, and this is their traditional dress.

IMG_0448 2
My friend Maha in her Palestinian Thobe!
More here: What to Pack for Morocco: Ladies

Fun fact: girls do not begin to wear the abaya, shayla, etc., until they become teenagers, but the little boys wear the traditional clothing below to go to the mosque for prayer time with their male family members on Fridays!


Did you know Arabic men traditionally dress conservatively as well? It’s true! The main difference is that they wear white instead of black, and their head covering is a little different. Also, how completely adorable is this?

Thobe (“thowb”): Long White Garment

The men’s thobe is mostly closed, but there are three-four buttons at the top.

My friends Mahmud, Ahmed, and Mustafa!

Gutra (goo-trah): White  or Red and White Head Covering

The gutra is either sheer white for summer or red and white for cooler temperatures. I actually asked my friends if the Bedouins in the desert wear the traditional clothing all the time or if they just dress that way for the tourists. This is what they really wear all the time–no pretense here!

My Bedouin Friend and His Camels
Helpful tips: Top 10 Packing Hacks

Gahfeia (“gah-fee-uh”): White Cap

A white cap that can be worn on its own or under the gutra.

Agal (uh-gol”): Black Rope Wrapped Around the Head

The agal is the black rope on top of the gutra to keep it in place. See the black part on the red gutra below?

The two cutest models you ever did see!

Also, will you look at this cutie patootie? Can you imagine my complete surprise and delight when this was the first thing I saw on the Friday morning I was there? Peace, little man.

Meet Azus!
More here: How to Pack the Perfect Carry-on

Does this post give you a better understanding of the traditional Arabic clothing? I hope so!

For everything I personally packed for this week-long trip, check out What I Packed for Qatar: Ladies Edition!

Want more about visiting this tiny country on the Arabian Peninsula? Check out my Qatar Page!

Love this post? Pin it for later!


2 responses to “What Men and Women Wear in the Middle East”

  1. […] is especially important in more conservative countries like some in Asia and the Middle East, and it is particularly important for women. Girls, this is not your moment to prove your […]

  2. […] to know more about clothing in the Middle East? Check out What Men and Women Wear in the Middle East! Want all my packing tips, including how to pack the perfect carry-on? Check out my Packing […]

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this:
Verified by ExactMetrics