Saudi women scrap traditional abaya in bold bid for more freedom

"No one should force me to wear something I don’t want,” says Manahel al-Otaibi, a 25-year-old Saudi activist.
Saturday 21/09/2019
A cry for freedom. Saudi human resources professional Mashael al-Jaloud, 33, walks past women wearing niqab at a commercial area in Riyadh.(AFP)
A cry for freedom. Saudi human resources professional Mashael al-Jaloud, 33, walks past women wearing niqab at a commercial area in Riyadh.(AFP)

LONDON - In a daring sign of rebellion, Saudi women activists ditched their body-shrouding abayas in Riyadh, saying they want to “live freely and without restrictions.”

The billowy over-garment, usually black, is customary public dress for women in Saudi Arabia, where not wearing it can invite harassment or even legal trouble.

Disillusioned with the repressive social norms, more women have taken to defying traditional dress codes, hoping to pave the way for greater freedoms in the fast-changing society.

Among them is Mashael al-Jaloud, a 33-year-old human resources specialist who recently visited a mall in Riyadh clad in an orange top and baggy trousers. Shoppers looked on with amazement as she walked by, she said. Some asked if she was a model.

Not all took kindly to Jaloud’s defiant display, with one fully veiled shopper threatening to report her to the police.

Another young Saudi woman, Manahel al-Otaibi, a 25-year-old activist, was spotted wearing denim overalls in Riyadh’s al Tahliya street.

Otaibi said she has been living in Riyadh without an abaya for four months because she wants to “live the way I want, freely and without restrictions.”

“No one should force me to wear something I don’t want,” she said.

In March 2018, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz suggested a more tolerant approach to women’s dress, saying they should not be compelled to wear abayas because they are not mandatory in Islam.

Despite Crown Prince Mohammed’s statements — accompanied by a sweeping liberalisation drive in line with Vision 2030 that has seen women gain the right to drive and travel with greater independence — boundaries remain largely untested in the ultra-conservative society.

Liberal Saudi women such as Jaloud and Otaibi say little has changed in their day-to-day lives and they hope for greater freedom to dress as they like in public without scrutiny or backlash.

Manahel al-Otaibi
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