Flowing covers…

Salaamu alaikum!

You all know that I’m extremely fascinated by the traditional attire of the worlds Muslim communities and here is another style that I want to share. Actually while it’s a “style”…its far from being homogeneous and makes its appearance in some rather unlikely places and is spread out through a wide swath of the world. I’m talking about the using of a long wide piece of material as ones overgarment. Its the traditional attire from Muslim communities in West Africa, through the Saharah, over to East Africa, throughout the Arabian Gulf (historically in the Eastern Provinces), skipping over to the southern part of Iran and then over again to India where it makes its appearance as the much known Saree.

Wow…such an incredible cloth with such a fascinating history.

Because the societies in which this form of covering is worn is so diverse I really do not know all the names in which this simple form of attire goes by…from Melepha and Melhafa to Thobe (top in slang) to Saree and beyond.

I’m not entirely sure how each culture wears the cloth. I reckon you must take one edge and tie it as a skirt and then use the other bit wrapped up and around the upper body. I’ve seen Mauritanian women wearing it over jeans or a petticoat for example here in my city.

Saharawi women in Western Africa…

Western volunteers in Melepha!

Women in Mauritania..

The urban Sudanese women have made their version, called thobe (aka top in slang) quite high fashion full of embroidery, bling and dripping with embellishments. I remember sometimes staying up late watching the fashion shows on Sudanese TV while we were in Saudi and I was always struck by how gorgeous they looked in their “top” and how many coordinated a perfectly matching Al-Ameera style tube scarf to their top

ohh la la! Very chic.

Interestingly enough this style makes its appearance in Southern Iran amongst the Bandari population along coast. I had thought that the printed attire the women wore was just a house-style chador wrapped around the head and body like say a Pakistani dupatta, but I’m wrong. While maybe some towns do, do that…I have since found that some areas just use a long, wide rectangle of cloth and wrap it in a manner which is strikingly similar to how Sudanese or Mauritanian women do! But, instead of wearing it over a skirt they wear a knee length tunic over very snug fitting, and often embroidered pants and then ofcourse sandles or heels. When we were in Shiraz this past time in Iran we saw a LOT of Bandari Iranians both around the city of Shiraz and ar Perspolis and being incredibly curious that I am, I paid a lot of attention to the women in this attire and even asked a friendly looking lady about it-while we were in the prayer area of a masjid in Shiraz. LOL…yes, I’m cheeky. She showed me that she wraps one edge around the waist as kind of like a loose skirt (with the pants showing) and then drapes the rest over the upper body and head, tucking it in to cover the hair. They look incredibly elegant in it. They call it chador too, but its obviously a different style. Its just a huge rectangle, like the Thobe, Melhafa or Melepha…not rounded like what most people consider a chador.

Given the extreme potpourri of ethnicities and cultures that have melded together to form the people of Southern Iran, I would assume that historical trade, slavery and intermarriage played a role in the transfer of this form of attire to Iran.

Interesting huh…I left out Indian sarees cuz I think we’ve all seen those. I hedge a bet that throughout history the easiest means of covering oneself was simply to wrap a large rectangle of fabric around ones body and voila…your cover and good to go!

One thing I wanted to mention is that in the Eastern part of Saudi, along the Gulf coast the traditional attire of women before the advent of the Bedu inspired abaya was what was called a “ridaah” (I’m not entirely sure of the name, but several women told me this was the name of the garment-it means shawl though in Arabic) and it was just a huge rectangle, wrapped around the body. They said its basically gone and only very old women in some of the island villages off the coast of Qatif still wear it. I believe I have seen it once, I was at the Qatif Thursday morning suq and I saw these very elderly women sitting on the ground, with big baskets of dates and other produce infront of them and several of them had on what looked like a large piece of printed material wrapped around their heads and bodies and not abayaat, they also worn the traditional and in Saudi basically gone, gold “birqa” mask thats more common to UAE nowadays. I assume they wear wearing this now basically defunct traditional ridaah.


12 thoughts on “Flowing covers…

  1. I have always loved this/these style(s). It is gorgeous and modest but it also always seemed like it would take time to learn how to wear so it stays the way you want it.

  2. Salaam sis. There is actually a sister online who has a “rida wrapping” tutorial up. She’s very crafty masha’allah and made a nice underdress to wear with hers.

    I can’t remember the link right now but just search “rida” without an h and her sewing info page will pop up. It’s really modest and elegant!

    Thanks for sharing…

  3. What a wonderful post mashaAllah. I’m very attracted to loose and very drapey clothing, but it can be so much more difficult to get used to wearing. I can imagine myself feeling all beautiful and free wrapped in one of these outfits and then having to rush to a corner some wear because it’s slipping off!

  4. Whatever ways these attires are worn, I suppose modesty is always a priority and they look absolutely gorgeous and feminine. Maybe someday you will do something about traditional attire worn by Muslimah in South East Asia e.g. Malaysia, Philippine, Indonesia, Thailand etc. They also have interesting and colorful costume including different styles of beautiful hijab 🙂

  5. Very beautiful! Many years ago I had a friend bring me a “Sudanese wrap” and I learned how to wear it. I don’t remember how to do it now, but it was not tied in any way. It was draped similarly to a sari – although there are dozens of different sari drapes – It was about twice as wide as a sari though nearly as long. It was relatively easy to wear.

  6. Asalaamu Alaikum

    Seems like most of them have their hair showing. maybe this style doesn’t lend itself well to covering up the hair just like dupatta. I think they need to be introduced to head covers/caps to go underneath.

  7. Salam-

    Good to see you’re back and firing on all cylinders, mashallah!

    Love these pics- I’ve always admired the style of the Saharawi women. And hooray for colour- who says muslimas are always drab and dressed in black!

  8. Interestingly in Scotland they used to wear something called an arisaidh which was also a huge rectangle wrapped in various ways to cover the head and body. I’ve seen pictures of Byzantine and Frankish women wearing similar as well so I think these are ancient modes of dress. The Somali guntiino and the traditional Libyan covering are similar as well, but the headcover is an extra piece with those.

  9. Also the materials used for the Sudanese Tobe are identical to those used for the Somali diraac, about 45-50′ wide and the fashions are very similar as well. If sequiny tones are in style, so will sequiny diraacs. Hence this Sudanese fabric shop in London has started marketing their tobe fabrics as diraac fabrics. I used to know how to do the tobe wrap, but forgot. I know it involves throwing one end over one shoulder at the back before starting to wrap but can’t remember after that.

  10. Assalamoalaikum,
    Masha Allah They are very beautiful,an excellent combination of ” JALAAL & JAMAAL” I call them ” Sacred Beauties.

  11. I enjoy wearing draped clothing (sari and sarong, mostly) and have become interested in learning the Sudanese and other African draping technique(s). Can anyone point me to a tutorial or two? Thank you.

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