‘Rebel’ Saudi women shun obligatory abaya robe | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, September 13, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 10:51 AM, September 13, 2019

‘Rebel’ Saudi women shun obligatory abaya robe

Her high heels clacking on marble tiles, a defiant Saudi woman turned heads and drew gasps as she strutted through a Riyadh mall -- without a body-shrouding abaya.

The billowy over-garment, usually all-black, is customary public wear for women in the ultra-conservative Islamic kingdom, where it is widely seen as a symbol of piety.

Last year, de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hinted during an interview with CBS that the dress code may be relaxed, saying the robe was not mandatory in Islam. But despite his sweeping liberalisation drive, the practice continued as no formal edict followed.

Some women subsequently mounted a rare social media protest against the restriction, posting pictures of themselves wearing the figure-concealing garment inside out.

Despite the risk of provoking arch-conservatives, many others now leave their cloaks open in the front or wear them in bright colours.

Mashael al-Jaloud has taken the cultural rebellion a step further -- she stopped wearing the robe.

In a stunning sight, the 33-year-old human resources specialist strolled through a mall in central Riyadh last week wearing nothing but a burnt orange top over baggy trousers.

In the crowd, there were audible gasps and arched eyebrows. Women veiled head-to-toe stared askance. Some mistook her for a celebrity.

Manahel al-Otaibi, a 25-year-old activist, has also foregone the garment.

“For four months I have been living in Riyadh without an abaya,” said Otaibi, walking along Tahlia street, a restaurant-lined thoroughfare, in casual overalls.

The abaya, which has existed for thousands of years but only became obligatory in recent decades, is also mandatory for non-Muslim women in the kingdom.

The dress code was once fanatically enforced by the now-neutered religious police, and uncovered women still face random harassment in a conservative nation where attire is often associated with chastity.

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