Overheads in KSA and MY take on them…


Recently I was just doing some random searching online and came upon the Saudi Stepford Wife blog and this post which deals with public perceptions of women who wear overhead abayaat and the shoulder abayaat. <To read this post go here>.

After reading that I felt like I should share my own perceptions of how the overhead is considered here in my area of Saudi Arabia (although she lives in Al-Hassa which isn’t too far from where I am at, so I assume the conservative nature of this area is similar to her area) and my own perceptions of the overhead abaya and my experience wearing it.


(Three Saudi women in the “modern” “sleeved” overhead abaya)

Here in this end of Saudi Arabia the overhead abaya is extremely common. Although I have heard that the overhead is not as popular in the Hejaz region of the country, it remains common and popular in the rest of the country. Around the Gulf region, specifically Kuwait and  Bahrain the overhead remains popular as well. Although overheads here in KSA do differ from the kind found in Kuwait and Bahrain. First and most importantly they are pieced differently. The Kuwaiti and Bahraini ones are more of the “old fashioned” sort, which means they consist of two huge pieces of thin crepe stitched lengthwise together in an S fashion and then the ends are brought inwards and stitched at the top. Forming a gigantic square. The seam would hit around your knees. There is generally no hemming at the bottom and any and all altering done to the abaya is done on this inside seam (Alhediya sells this type of traditional overhead). This style has a very big, billowy look and normally there are no snaps down the front. You just hold it closed with your hands.

Here in Saudi Arabia the majority of batwing abayaat are  made from double width crepe and so the bottom is cut in the style typical of all abayat and there is no inside seam, usually there are snaps down the front or the abaya is made so there is no opening at all down the front (although this is more common on the sleeved overhead).

Take mine as an example… It is cut the same as a bisht abaya only it goes from the head and there are snaps going down the front and cuffs added to the edges of the abaya. It’s still a huge square but isnt as billowy and huge “looking”.

(Picture taken of me in a Saudi batwing abaya-from Arabian Threads)

The Saudi overheads commonly have an extra piece stitched at the very bottom which I have fondly nicknamed a “dragger” and it basically facilitates the dragging of the overhead on the ground. I assume this practice is based off of the sunnah of women dragging their garments a handspan behind them.  The “dragger” can be removed if desired, but I just kept mine.

The other popular kind of overhead is one which is cut like a shoulder abaya, only it flows from the head (like the first picture, above). The “sleeved overhead”. It fits closer to the body and is a bit less cumbersome for those who are not used to wearing an overhead. The sleeved variety seems to be much more popular than the batwing. I can only speculate at the reasons behind this, but again I think most women view the huge batwing as cumbersome so they will choose something which seems a bit easier to wear. Most of the sleeved varieties have fancy cuffs usually with rhinestones or embroidery and look practically like a shoulder abaya.  These are really popular in the satin material and personally I think a matte sleeved overhead would actually work rather well in most areas of North America as a slightly more modest take on the shoulder abaya. But personally, call me old fashioned. I prefer the big, old batwing overhead to the sleeved variety. Although i’m hoping to get a sleeved overhead sometime in the next month or so.
The sister who runs the Saudi Stepford Wife blog mentions some perceptions along with pros and cons (according to her) of the overhead abaya, a few of which, I want to touch on. Now, I am unsure as to how accurate these perceptions are but, I will reckon a guess that they are fairly on target.


    • That a woman wearing an overhead (of any variety) is a religious and traditional woman.

Yup, this seems like an accurate presumption. I have yet to see any Saudi women NOT in Niqab wearing an overhead. As far as Saudi women go…niqab and overhead go hand in hand.


    • Shes not going to flirt and she MUST be Saudi seem accurate as well,

Although I have seen Saudi men trail after women in niqab and overheads, but it just seems as though the women in the overheads tend to be a bit less OK with nonsense of that sort and yes, people do assume all overhead wearers are Saudi. Afterall, they assume overheads are cumbersome so why would a foreigner wear one…right?

*Pros (according to her);

  • Better airflow in summer; i.e. you stay cooler.

yes this is pretty accurate, if your wearing an overhead without snaps and which is closed up the front you can basically go out in anything under it and be cool, even in a snap front overhead a tank top and lightweight pants or a skirt is OK and particularly in batwings the airflow is really really good, especially if there is a breeze.

  • Ones body is hidden better (she uses the nursing baby or pregnant scenario)

Yes, very accurate, although in a sleeved overhead if you are on the bigger side or extremely pregnant this is more noticeable, also women with a large rump or chest are usually advised to stay away from the sleeved overheads. In the batwing overheads everything is very well hidden, regardless of body size.

*Cons (according to her);

I’m C&Ping them all..

  • Hard to look left/right, up/down without the stupid thing needing to be either held on or readjusted.
  • Once you get up from a seated position you gotta hoist it back up onto your head.
  • Hard to carry stuff on your shoulder (purses, baby bags) without yanking it off your head.
  • Can’t manage carrying a wiggly baby/toddler with all of the above issues.

well, on most of these I do disagree, because really it comes down to how you wear it. I have a few neat overhead tricks which I use to make my wearing one a snap, plus, like most things the more you wear one the more skilled you’ll be with with one.

So now let me share my take on wearing an overhead and some neat tricks I’ve learned which make wearing one a lot more comfortable.


Ive had overheads for years, and my longest wearing one was a Kuwaiti style overhead from AlHediya. It’s a pretty comfortable overhead but because the fabric is extremely thin and slightly slippery the thing slides everywhere. I found that stitching a piece of velour or cotton gauze inside the head area really helped to keep it on. Also like anything else when I first started to wear one I was a huge mess! The thing would fall down, drag, I’d trip, I’d sit down and it would slide down, oh what a mess! Before coming here I normally reserved wearing an overhead for Iran and of course in the US would stick to the more appropriate shoulder abayaat (or jilbabs or tunics…or…or…) but even then, I usually picked up near wearing tricks every time I was in Iran. The first was how to keep one on your head.

Basically…just do the easy thing and stitch a piece of elastic into the head area! LOL…it makes wearing an overhead (or a chador) a piece of cake!

Here are some pictures of the elastic inside my Saudi batwing abaya.

(vide of the elastic inside the head part of the overhead abaya)

With elastic inside the head piece…come hell or high water the overhead WILL stay on your head with minimal effort!

The elastic can take some getting used to. You need to place it correctly and position the overhead on your head properly so it’s comfortable and since it doesn’t slide around as much, the overhead (or chador) can feel heavier. Although with time, these minor “issues” go away as you get used to wearing the overhead like this.

For the past month and a half pretty much anytime I go out, I wear my Saudi overhead. Since that ever so traumatizing experience with the groddy Saudi dude in the abaya shop and my ceasing with wearing niqab I completely switched my clothing style to tunic and jeans with overhead abaya. I prefer the switch and am much more comfortable in the overhead. I feel like it does a good job of keeping me comfortable but covered and tends to keep creepers away (usually)…or well, atleast better than a shoulder abaya would. Also wearing the overhead with a colored scarf or even a black scarf but sans niqab really tends to stand out so people KNOW your an expat, which definably has it’s perks. And, I love the unique look…overhead with colored scarf. Another perk is my husband breaths easier knowing I’m not trying to buy a new abaya every week (teehee) and of course he loves the look (chador lovin’ man that he is!). So all in all…it’s a win-win situation. LOL

Some other tricks Ive learned is…keep it simple under the overhead! Since I tend to leave the snaps open and pop one arm out and just hold the abaya in my hands (like a chador) stick to tunics and jeans under the abaya. A lot of women wear jalabeeyas or skirts under theirs but I think it’s a bit excessive and also can cause tripping (although Saudi women don’t seem to ever trip…go figure).

Also…learning how to maneuver in one is key. When you sit down you gather it up before you sit, when you stand you do the same thing. You don’t just plop down and hope for the best. There IS a method to wearing one! Ive also found that watching others and then mimicking them is best…

As far as carrying purses, bags and pushing strollers or carts…well here most women keep their purses on top of their abayaat, BUT, since I prefer the batwing and my purses aren’t generally huge and stuffed to the max,I wear mine UNDER my overhead. ala’ Irani chador style. It keeps people from trying to snoop in my purse (not that I think anyone would try anyway) and more importantly is a lot more comfortable. Ofcourse you might have a strange bump but really, who cares…

…Oh and you can hide small purchases under the abaya so like when you go into the grocery store you dont have to go to the customer service desk first and have them hold it for you while you shop. muahahahaha

As far as pushing carts and strollers go, women here normally hold the abayah in 1 hand as they push the cart, yes both hands push the cart but under 1 hand is some of the abaya so there is no wheel catching and soforth.

I shall end here, I need a caffeine fix…


12 thoughts on “Overheads in KSA and MY take on them…

  1. I think you should sell overhead abayas with the elastic stitched in them, etc. Anything to make it as easy as possible for newbies/clueless, etc. I would be interested in a sleeved one and maybe a batwing one. I took a year of sewing classes, on and off but looking back I think I didn’t have the best teacher and I ended up trying to do things I wasn’t ready for, getting really frustrated really fast – I don’t think I’m a natural at sewing at all and I’m still afraid of most any sewing.

  2. Also, prayer chadors would be nice – all the online stores sell Sunni ones that are too short for people who pray with hands at sides – I want ones that cover up my hands when at sides – so like lower-thigh to knee length.

    • Well here in Saudi Arabia there are huge square sheets called shershaf which are wrapped around the body completely and these would work.

  3. I find any sleeved overheads (unless they are the open kind that are meant to go over another abaya) extremely immodest on me personally; and they do have the look as another sister said of when a kid wears their coat or sweater pulled up over their head, most of the Saudi and Emirati pre made sleeved abayas, the sleeves come right up close to the body when worn on the head, and also I find the sleeves are usually just too narrow many of them have the added issue of being cut ‘funny’ at the bottom or even shorter at the back. I also find these modern styles more hot and heavy to wear. I’ve had similar problems with Egyptian isdals. I do have, and also make overheads with basically just wide cuffs; coming from mid forearm, I find this is a much better solution, as modest as the full batwing style but much more practical. Lately I made a set with a shorter overhead like this (to about mid calf level) over a skirt. Its in a koshiba crepe but an extremely fine grade one; which from any distance looks like the proper silk used for abayas (not the cheap poly satin used for some, but the silk with the slight sheen). It only costed £1 a metre. I also have a top notch crepe de chine in extremely dark brown that I am going to use to make a similar type of overhead; or the set with the skirt I haven’t decided yet.

    • I agree that most overheads available are shotty but actually…I havent had this problem here in KSA. Maybe it’s the area I live in (as overheads are the norm here in the EP). But, like if you want to get one made to your specifications you can go into any abaya shop in the ladies suq-or even the uber expensive-designer boutiques in malls and design an overhead which they will make and the ones Ive bought off the rack, both for myself and for customers have been rather exceptional.

      Yes close fitting sleeves are popular in the sleeved overheads but Ive seen some with big billowy, kimono sleeves too and every overhead that Ive seen off the rack is much, much longer in the back and is cut as a huge A (cept for the batwings which are, obviously a huge square). They also often sew on this little piece, I call a “dragger” which ensures ur overhead drags on the ground, ala’ sunnah hem dragging of 1 handspan.

      I personally wouldnt go for the closed front overheads myself as yah, they arent as modest-I think, but the ones that snap down the front are quite nice and I just wear mine over jeans, tunic and a shaylah and I’m out the door. Im pretty sure when I go back to the US in April for a few months I’ll be wearing my overheads (esp the sleeved ones) as Ive come to prefer them and like how they fit.

      Sophie, do you want me to get one for you? I know your tall but that shouldnt be a problem, a lot of the Saudi women in this area are really tall too (the Bedu ones).

      p.s. I had an Egyptian Isdal once and EWWWWWWWWWWWWWW…the cut and fit on that one was ALL wrong!

  4. I think it probably is the fact in Hijaz; with the exception of Madinah; the overhead is not the norm in most neighbourhoods; having said that though the sleeved overheads they had were a top brand (most were the ‘internet’ brand from Dubai and some other well known abaya brands I cannot remember); so you think they’d do better. Jazakillaahkhayr sis for the offer of getting me one made, but the budget is not permitting right now as we just moved and still need sofas. Also with the drag piece; I like my abayas to be 76 or even 78″ at the back but then they have to be cut a certain way in front not to be too long or have the back come around the front and be a tripping hazard. I’ve measured some of my overheads and in some cases the front is only 56″ (I usually wear a 62) but its the way its cut; its floor length all the way around but when I walk, no tripping hazard. Alhamdulillaah I made a hybrid overhead once where the shape, width, bottom hem shaping (very important; if its not done well it will have a ‘shirt tails’ effect and appear shorter at the sides) everything was to my exact liking I drew round several overheads and took the best bits of each one; and I use the original one I made as a pattern now. Its just finding the time to sew; but I know anything else I won’t end up wearing it, I’m fussy like that lol. I’ve had great overheads; I got one from Philly that was specifically made for The Islamic Place, made in Morocco but from Gulf fabric (the more expensive type of mustaqbal crepe) but while it is exceptionally well made and the tailoring is excellent, its not 100% as I like it. I also prefer them with a tieback but again the tieback has to be an exact science; I use a full 60 inches length of fabric so that when tied, the extra length and slight extra weight of the tie-back keep it well anchored without it having to be tied too tightly. I also make the tieback fairly narrow; and just straight; I’ve found garments with curved or wide tiebacks place all the weight at the back of the head and end up falling off constantly; or just not being too comfortable. I also make sure the seam attaching the tieback to the abaya is completely flat; I’ve had so many where that seam is serged; and it is incredibly itchy and annoying. I have way too many black ones as it is anyway (about 8 at last count, I believe); if there was the option of lightweight ones in other colours (hint, hint); then I will certainly be saving my pennies for that. I saw one in philly that was two tone/irisdescent black and teal; in a lightweight faux shantung silk, beautiful and not too flashy but it came in one length and that length was too short for me.

    • Honestly though it doesnt surprise me that the better brands from UAE were not that good as far as overheads go. A lot of women ive spoken to who live in UAE say the overhead is overall-not very common. Normally if a woman wears one shes from a rural area and wears the more traditional kind.

      wow, you do know your overheads! LOL…but personally, I really haven’t had any problems with the ones ive bought and tried on from the shops around me. Again, could be because the overhead is extremely common. I still overall prefer the batwing style of overhead and the one I got here and wear all the time overall is pretty perfect-to me, I did purchase it about 2 inches longer than I normally would have because I wanted to wear it like one wears a chador, like wrapping it around me, stuff like that. The extra width allows that, and I have a sleeved one which is 2 inches shorter and I can walk without needing to hold it up at all…ofcourse the back does drag still-drag piece, ya know…but def. not a trip hazard. The Isdaals though are a whole ‘nother “beast” and one Im not too fond of.

      I can pretty easily get colored crepes and other fabrics here and Im sure I could take it to one of the abaya shops I normally go to and have them make one to your specifications. You like the tie backs eh? See I put a piece of elastic in mine, serves the same purpose, i guess.

      Should you ever be interested…just drop me an email…

  5. Assalamu Alaikum wa rahmatullahi t3ala wa barakatuhu!
    I absolutely loveeeeeee these abayahs! Im not a saudi, but I bought them
    anyway, lol, I wear them everywhere! I have about 3, the only peoblem is they
    get dirty soo fast (like the bottom part, and it rubs on the ground), you have to like
    wash them every 3 days or something. I find these abayahs very covering and comfortable!

  6. Pingback: Overhead abayaat gracefully… | Old School Hejabi

  7. Assalamu aleikom! can you please tell how to sew overhead abaya? because i found a pattern witch is very strange and incorrect

    • asalaamu alaikum…sister, how do you know the pattern is incorrect? Also, no I cant really tell you how to sew one, you need to have one as a template to go off of and there are many different styles available on the market now adays. Best of luck.

Comments are closed.