Saudi women have been obliged to wear abayas (floor-length garments) in public for long, but the recent optics seen in the Saudi society are giving the hint on this changing soon. There has been a shift in the approach toward the conservative outfit of late, with a number of notable clerics speaking up against imposition of attire on the women.
Recently one of the well-known Islamic scholar, Ahmed bin Qasim Al Ghamdi – former head of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice in Mecca – commented on the issue.
“I don’t see reason as why a woman should be forced to wear an abaya in public. If she wears something that covers her body and hair well, it’s permissible irrespective of the color or brand/type of her clothes,” he remarked while appearing on Rotana Khalijiya’s program Etijahat.
The cleric in the televised appearance went to add that Quranic verses related to the floor-length garments were for the period that’s entirely different from the current time. He also explained that he dwelled in the country’s Southern region back in the late 70’s and was witness to the fact that women in the Saudi Kingdom didn’t put on abayas publicly back then.
Al Ghamdi who once headed Religious police in Mecca also said he’s against face coverings and believes they are a hindrance to women today. The cleric is not the only public figure to speak out against the rigidity of rule but his comments were enough to stir up controversy on Twitter and Facebook.
Many users thought his statements are contrary to the values and traditions of Kingdom while others criticized his perspective. Some feared that Ghamdi comments might be paving the way for an official change in rules about Saudi women’s attire. Others were all for his statements and thought it was about time to drop the mandatory abaya rule and were in favor of further ease of restrictions on women by ultra conservative clergy. One twitter user said:
“What does he want? We won’t let go of our hijabs or our values. What’s more beautiful than our girls walking out of their schools and colleges all modest? The hijab is something to be proud of. Also, we’re applying what came in God’s book and we don’t need such edicts.”
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2018 was interviewed by journalist Norah O’Donnell. Speaking to the anchor of CBS News, MBS addressing the question commented that Sharia law does not require women to wear the hijab and abaya.
That same year, Sheikh Abdullah Al-Mutlaq, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars, was of the view that the long loose-fitting robe is not necessary to preserve modesty when there are other easy ways to do so.
“Over 90 % of pious Muslim women in the Muslim world do not don abayas. Hence we should not force ours to wear abayas,” Al-Mutlaq posited at the time.
Saudi media particularly the moderates in the Kingdom lauded the comments, claiming they were the first of their kind to come from such a senior religious figure. Al Mutlaq’s comments also influenced the recently introduced reforms in Saudi Arabia, many of which were passed to grant women rights they didn’t have previously.
Women in Saudi Arabia have fought for their rights including their right to drive and travel without the permission of a male guardian however, they still can’t freely opt what to wear in public.
For now, Saudi Sharia law still forces women, both foreigners and locals, to put on an abaya when out in public places. Locals are also obliged to have a hijab in some parts of the country, including the capitol are of Riyadh.
Women who resist the law risk detainment and can face litigation in Sharia courts. A Saudi woman in late 2016 was arrested for tweeting a photo of herself going for breakfast in Riyadh without hijab or abaya. A year later, a social media influencer also got booked after a video of herself walking through a Saudi historical site wearing a mini-skirt surfaced on the electronic media of the Kingdom.
A huge number of women have long been fighting against the mandatory abaya law. In 2018, thousands of them initiated an online campaign under the Arabic hashtag “Abaya Inside Out” in protest of the rule seen fundamentalist by a segment of society.
The protest campaign called for women to post photos of themselves in abayas flipped inside out as “a silent objection to being pressured to wear it as they express solidarity to the cause, which is freedom of Saudi women.
An even more defiant movement was launched in 2018 against the hard interpretation of Sharia Law by Saudi women where hundreds of women joined an online campaign sponsored by Taraf Alasiri which suggested the removal of niqabs and hijabs.