Tales from the Abu Dhabi Classroom: On Students Who Cover

Another interesting occurrence that I sometimes take for granted while at my job is my gender. Being female, I am afforded more liberties than my male colleagues. For example, when I want to enter my classroom, I simply open the door and walk through it. Before my male colleagues enter any classroom, they usually knock on the door and announce themselves. This gives the female students a chance to “cover” (or re-cover) if they so choose. What do I mean by “cover”? Emirati women typically wear an abaya and shayla.


Wearing national dress to celebrate the 43rd UAE National Day
Wearing national dress to celebrate the 43rd UAE National Day

The abaya is like a long, loose, but fashionable robe. A shayla is a scarf that most of my students loosely wrap around their heads. When some of the ladies are in a classroom alone during a break, they may choose to remove their shaylas or not replace it when it falls down (as they always seem to do unless pinned or tucked properly). When a man is announced at the door, it gives those students who wish to be more modest in the presence of men a chance to do so – to “cover”.

There are also female students who are (or come from families who are) quite conservative. These are ladies who cover a bit more than most. In addition to the Emirati (and even Qatari) national dress of abaya and shayla, some of the more conservative ladies choose to wear niqab. A niqab is material that covers the face so that only the eyes are visible.

There are also some conservative ladies who choose to cover just about everything. In addition to the abaya, shayla and niqab, these ladies choose to sport a veil and gloves.

Technically, veils are not allowed to be worn in the classroom or in the building for safety (and practical) reasons. The most conservative veils are made so that the woman wearing it can see out, but others on the outside cannot see the woman’s face. The veiled and gloved students were the most interesting ones to me when I first arrived. I’d always get a kick out of seeing many of them sitting on the couches in the hallway, fully covered – save for their exposed thumb or even exposed hand while texting or scrolling on their smart phone. One day my curiosity got the best of me and I approached a student while she was texting with one ungloved hand.

Me: Good morning.

Student: Good morning.

Me: I always see you here on your mobile with one hand uncovered. Did you know they make gloves that you can use with a touchscreen?

Student: Really?! No way! I did not know.

Me: Yes, they are made with a special thread that reacts with the screen.

Student: Cool.

Me: Isn’t it? Where I’m from in the US it gets very cold in the winter so we wear gloves. The touchscreen ones help me to take cute selfies and text without freezing my hands off.

Student: Haha! Smart, Miss. I haven’t seen anything like that here. It doesn’t get cold.

I left that conversation with a business idea and she left with her mind blown. Still see her texting her life away with one ungloved hand.


Oh, and one last one before I go… Last semester I had a class right after the lunch break and prayer time. Most of the ladies would already be in the room when I arrived for class. I made it a point to try to learn all of my students’ names. Doing this is no small feat when you might have 3 Fatimas and 4 Khawlas in one class. Fortunately, the ladies tended to sit in small groups with the same people in the same area of the room each class. I took advantage of this and used it as a tool to help me learn their names. I’d look at the groups of girls seated in each section and try to associate students’ names with their most salient features. For example, there were 3 ladies whose names I learned first because they always sat together in the back row. Girl 1 smiled often, had a very round face and wore glasses. Girl 2 had a nose ring and never wore her shayla in class, so I also noticed her very distinctive hair color. Girl 3 always had a flawless face of makeup and wore the most beautiful shade of red lipstick. And so it went, group by group, until I had learned all of their names.

One day I walked into my office to find a group of covered (all wore niqabs and gloves, and one wore a veil) students seated at the conference table near the door. I share office space with 5 other colleagues – 4 of them male. One of the male professors had a constant stream of students coming in to see him about class assignments that day, but wasn’t at his desk. I figured they were waiting on him, but asked another male colleague what was going on.

Me: Are those your students?

Another Male Colleague: No. I think they’re here to see Absent Male Colleague, but I’m not sure. They seemed like they weren’t comfortable talking to me.

Me: Strange. I’ll go check. *walks over to group of veiled students*

Me: Hello, ladies. Are you here to see Dr. Absent Male Colleague?

Niqab Student1: No, Miss. We’re here for you.

Me: Me? What’s this concerning?

Niqab Student2: Yanni… We want to talk about.. the yanni… the  paper, Miss.

Me: I’m sorry. What paper? Are you sure you want to talk to me?

Veiled Student: Yes, Miss. You said come to your office after class. You don’t remember us?

Me: I’m sorry. I have no idea who you are.

*students mumbling to each other in Arabic*

Veiled Student: *Turns so only I can see and raises her veil and niqab quickly* It’s me, Bright Red Lipstick.

Niqab Student2: *Lifts niqab* And me, Nose Ring with Distinctive Hair Color.

Niqab Student1: And it’s me, Round Face, Miss.

Me: Oh my goodness! I’m so sorry, ladies. Yes, yes. I remember now.

We all had a good laugh over that one. It never occurred to me that 3 of my most vivacious students would be women that dressed so conservatively. I have since learned 2 very important lessons: 1) women who are veiled or wear niqab aren’t the meek, pious, religious zealots the world would have you to believe they are, and 2) pay attention to shoes and purses not faces and hair!


3 thoughts on “Tales from the Abu Dhabi Classroom: On Students Who Cover

  1. Very nice post. I really enjoyed learning more about your job. I have fleeting thoughts of packing my family up and moving over there so this was some fun insight. Also, I love the feminism of this post. I wish I had better descriptors but this was…cool. A very cool post lol

  2. When I taught niqabis I was forever being greeted by students in the grocery store who would then get annoyed when I would ask names…I’d get questions like, “teacher don’t you recognize my eyes?” and “but I am so short…how do you not know it is me?”

    It took me a long time to realize they were messing with me…

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