Shortly after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to the USA in March 2018, I traveled back home to Saudi Arabia from Boston to visit my family. My sisters, friends and mostly every young woman I met were pleased about what the Crown Prince had said about Saudi women and the Abaya (Abaya is an over-garment cloak like a dress) in one of his TV interviews “The decision is entirely up to women to decide what type of decent and respectful attire she chooses to wear.” His speech was spontaneous, influential and powerful. Besides, there is no evidence in the Quran that the woman is obliged to wear the Abaya or cover her face. The essence of Islam and Arab customs is to embrace modesty in everything clothing, speech, and actions.
Modesty does not mean Abaya and Abaya does not mean modesty.
Through my observation in both the American and Saudi press, by living in Riyadh for one short month, I noticed that there had been a rapid change of events in Saudi Arabia. The desire of the government and the people to process these changes has affected the daily lives of people. Some people see the changes as positive, and some see the contrary.
One of the things that caught my attention when I was in Riyadh was the shrinking of religious police. A few years ago their presence was omnipotent; they were everywhere and often had an adverse influence on people’s lives but women’s lives in particular. No one in the world wants to be forced to wear, say or do something. Now no one needs to be ordered around by religious police who does not support and respect women. In fact, there are very knowledgeable and moderate clerics in society who support women rights, but the vast majority are not.
Religious police harassed women everywhere, like shopping malls, in parks and even at the gates of schools and universities. We could not appear in public without wearing a loose black Abaya and a face covering. We could not laugh loudly or speak loudly in public places because loud women’s voices were a religious violation, in their opinion.
It is important to note that Saudi society was not rigid before the 1970s. Women could go out to visit their neighbor, or to walk in the street without wearing the dark Abaya or Burqa (Burqa is a black veil with a wide opening shows the eyes). To be more precise, Abaya was not imposed on women by religious men till 1970s. Pre-1970 and even pre-Islam, women of each tribe in the Arabian Peninsula dressed differently. Each tribe has its clothing style, colors, and embroidery. The clothes were the identity to identify the person’s tribe. Burqa and Abaya are traditional outerwear for Bedouin women (not all Arabs are Bedouin) and not Islamic customs. The Bedouin women wore the Burqa to protect their face from the sunburn. Besides, to protect themselves from bandits while traveling in the desert. The bandits would be afraid of the woman wearing the burqa because of her belonging to a tribe. If they were to harassed or harmed her, the whole tribe would chase them down and kill them.
Wearing the garments was never a burden until religious extremists used it as a tool to control women, in which the black Abaya became a mobile prison. At the beginning of the 1970s and early 1980s, the emergence of militant groups throughout the Middle East appeared. Remember the Islamic revolution in Iran? The jihadist movements in Afghanistan during The Soviet-Afghan War? The Grand Mosque seizure by militants in Saudi Arabia? All of this upheaval impacted ordinary people’s’ lives. Calls from jihadists and fanatical Islamists began to take hold. Religious fanatics throughout the Middle East began to develop religious laws based on their interpretation of the verses of the Quran, a translation that serves their own. They were able to gain public opinion and grow strong. Everyday people were harassed if they did not follow the Jihadist’s rules. It was easy to accuse people of apostasy and disbelief if they did not follow their ideas and laws. It was the Dark Ages of the Arab World – but now, it is the age of Enlightenment.
I was born in the 1980s at the height of the religious extremism that swept through Saudi Arabia and the Middle East in general. I saw the beginning of the radicalization and perhaps, hopefully, its end. From one woman’s point of view, I have been able to and still be a living witness to the beginning of extremism and its decline in Saudi Arabia.
When I was growing up, my mother and our female neighbors could not go out into the street (or any public place) without wearing a black Abaya, Burqa, and gloves. The religious police programmed the people, especially the men, that whoever allowed his wife, sister or daughter, to go out of the home without the Abaya considered non-Muslim. That does not mean that all the men in Saudi Arabia supported that. However, some did not want to deal with the confrontation because of the useless outcome. Voices were calling for moderation not to impose anything on the people, but the militants accused them of secularism and the imitation of Western culture.
When I entered the fourth grade, all girls are forced to wear a black Abaya called “Jilbab,” which was made especially for young girls. It was a long black dress with long sleeves. I wore the Jilbab when going to school over my uniform and as soon as I arrive at the school I will take it off. In Saudi Arabia, the religious police force has weakened since the reign of the late King Abdullah and has almost disappeared with the current reign of King Salman, who has initiated many reforms in the country.
My niece Mays Alreem is a different story. When she was three years old, she wanted her mother to get her Abaya because she tried to imitate her mother. So her mother bought her one. She looked cute and gorgeous in it and played dress up around the house. Now, my niece is seven years old, and when she reaches the fourth grade, she will not be forced to wear an Abaya. She and all girls of her age will grow up to be themselves because they have the freedom of choice.
With all the changes and the current development in Saudi Arabia under the new king and government, women have some freedom. They can now drive and are no longer forced to cover their faces. However, the Abaya will remain a symbol of the Saudi woman, the symbol of freedom of choice, even if the women decided one day that they will not wear Abaya anymore. I am confident that they will keep one Abaya as a memory to wear it at national and traditional events like Ramadan and Eid. Saudi women are proud of their traditions. Abaya, Burqa, and Hijab are part of their cultural and social heritage. Older women still cling to black Abaya and Burqa, unlike the young women who loved to wear the colored Abaya and abandon the veil. There is a segment of young women who are thinking of no longer wearing the Abaya.
Since the beginning of 2000, the Abaya has become fashionable. For instance, the Abaya appears in all colors, not just black. It has become more stylish when embroidered, and the styles have become inspired by global fashion. Even international fashion houses, such as Dolce & Gabbana, have designed and promoted a series of fashionable Abayas. These high fashion garments are very impressive and certainly expensive! At one point in time, wearing a colorful Abaya was considered a violation and the religious police could expel a woman from a shopping mall or the market for wearing one.
I am jubilant that Saudi women are becoming more independent and educated. Yes, like I can do here in Boston, women back home in Riyadh drive their cars and wear modern clothes and fashionable Abaya to work. Behind this development in the subject of Abaya was the suffering and struggle of many women in Saudi Arabia. The higher the escalation of religious police towards any slight change in Abaya, the more insistent women to change the form of the Abaya. All women around the world have fought for their rights and freedoms, it may vary from country to country, but the challenges are constant (the clergy, society, politics and narrow- minded).
I can’t help but think that as women all over the world, we have not yet taken our full rights yet. The story of any woman and her suffering somewhere is an inspiration to other women elsewhere. Like my American women friends have inspired me to start writing about Saudi Women rights and stories. They made me understand the history and struggle that was behind all the privileges they have now in America. American women have accomplished a lot so far, but still, have a long list to achieve.