It came on February 9, a Friday. And via public broadcast. A senior Saudi cleric appeared on television to pronounce that “we should not force people to wear abayas”. Saudi-watchers circled the date on their calendar. Another mainstay of the strict Wahabi system of social control is on its way out, they thought to themselves. This breed of specialists has been watching, in rapt attention, the spirit of reformist zeal engulfing the kingdom since Prince Mohammed bin Salman was appointed Crown Prince by his father, the King. This is not yet official policy—it’s simply the way in which the Saudi government tests public reaction before confirming reform in a particular sector. In the broadcast, Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq used words and logic which could well have been deployed, profitably, by a free-spirited soul trying to convince some of our home-grown mossbacks in their seminaries. “More than 90 per cent of pious Muslim women in the Muslim world do not wear abayas,” intoned Sheikh Abdullah, a member of the council of senior ulema, the kingdom’s highest religious body. His words carry great weight and any statement by him would most likely have government approval, if not be an outright instruction.
The abaya, a black all-encompassing cloak, is designed to cover the female form from the neck to the ankles—regardless of what one wears underneath. It could even be pajamas, as my daughter reminded me! It’s usually made from a light polyester material—although fashionable ladies of Riyadh and Jeddah experiment with chiffon or other material made by local Bedouin women. The fashion designers of the Arab world and, indeed, of the Paris, London and Milan catwalks, often introduce exotic features—like patchwork, frills or pom-poms—which the brave can showcase. But until now, however much fashion intruded, adherence to the traditional abaya remained. Older women would caution the young to wear modest (read: boring) abayas. The only exception: women diplomats or the wives of diplomats would be excused when women leaders from their countries visited—e.g. Theresa May, Michelle Obama or Melania Trump—and they were personally part of the delegation.
I wore the abaya for five years during my husband’s two ambassadorial postings to Riyadh. I recall being excused from wearing one when Dr Manmohan Singh arrived on a state visit in 2010. Gursharan Kaur was visiting too, so the King decreed that we were not required to wear the abaya.
For some expat women, the abaya was an issue. Personally, I never had a problem with it and treated it as one would a jacket. (The only drawback: being black, it attracted heat.) In fact, I missed not having to wear one after we left as I hate dressing up and often a pretty, made-in-India abaya was my salvation! My abayas were unbuttoned and would fly open with the breeze, showing trousers or a churidar-kameez underneath. I must have been one of the favoured ones as I never got scolded by the muttawas (religious police) for that or for not wearing the hijab!
To digress, I see that Sheikh Abdullah said nothing about the hijab, which covers the hair, an item more keenly resisted by expat women, unlike the abaya. So, presumably, the requirement for the hijab will continue to be enforced. The unwritten rule there is a curious one: all Muslim/Arab women and blondes must cover their hair! One wonders at the connection.
The abaya or the hijab is not, in fact, required by the Quran—women are simply required to dress modestly. The rest is ‘culture’. I suspect, despite the new tidings, the abaya will continue to be a matter of social and familial conditioning, as it is in several other Arab countries. I can cite Oman and the UAE from experience. The wearing of the abaya is a matter of personal preference there—the same way an Indian would choose to wear a sari, a bindi or sindoor.
Now, as the rules around this dark garment get more relaxed, we may see Saudi women indulge themselves with more fancy clothing. And who better than our very own designers to cater to this! I envisage a new destination opening up for the Ritu Kumars and Tarun Tahilianis. All Arab ladies love to dress up—and they adore the intricate work on the textiles they regularly see in Bollywood movies! I’ve often been asked to visit a lady’s home to grade their purchases after visits to India. I can well imagine a renewed surge of interest in their wardrobes, now that their boring staple is being banished to the back of it! With this done, and also gender segregation and the prohibition on women’s driving behind us, let’s hope the Saudi regime turns its attention to the real bugbear—guardianship, without which real freedom is still a dream for Saudi women.
(The author is a lawyer and the wife of a former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia)