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.
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.
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.