Saudi women turn abayas inside-out in daring campaign

The inside-out abaya campaign showed not only a frustration with the strict dress code but also the emergence of a Twitter wave of activism.
Sunday 18/11/2018
Tool for change. A Saudi woman in an abaya uses her smartphone in Riyadh.      (Reuters)
Tool for change. A Saudi woman in an abaya uses her smartphone in Riyadh. (Reuters)

RIYADH - In a move that was largely described as creative and courageous, Saudi women developed a new form of protest and given it the Twitter hashtag “#Abaya_maqluba,” which translates to “inside-out Abaya.”

Saudi women have posted pictures of themselves wearing Abayas — the loose-fitting, full-length robes symbolic of Islamic piety — as a form of objection to being pressured to wear the garment.

The campaign comes two months after a similar drive that called on Saudi women to burn the niqab, the full veil. That move, deemed “bold” and “original” by some activists, was controversial in ultraconservative Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has no written legal code to go with sharia but police and the judiciary have long enforced a strict dress code requiring Saudi women to wear Abayas and, in many cases, to cover their hair and faces.

The inside-out Abaya campaign echoes statements by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz this year stating that Saudi women need not wear head covers or the black Abaya if their attire is “decent and respectful.”

“The laws are very clear and stipulated in the laws of sharia: that women wear decent, respectful clothing, like men,” Crown Prince Mohammed said in an interview in March with CBS’s News’ “60 Minutes.”

“This, however, does not particularly specify a black Abaya or a black head cover. The decision is entirely left for women to decide what type of decent and respectful attire she chooses to wear,” he said.

Within the new climate of more social freedoms, Saudi women have been wearing more colourful Abayas in recent years, the light blues and pinks in stark contrast to the traditional black. Open Abayas over long skirts or jeans are more common in parts of the kingdom.

The ascent to power of Crown Prince Mohammed in 2017 brought an expansion in women’s rights, including their being able to attend mixed public sporting events, open businesses without a male’s permission and drive a car.

The powers of the Saudi religious police were curtailed, an entertainment authority established and the first woman appointed to head the Saudi Stock Exchange, all part of what is being hailed as a progressive trend towards modernisation.

The inside-out Abaya campaign showed not only a frustration with the strict dress code but also the emergence of a Twitter wave of activism that Saudi women said they hope will consolidate social gains and additional reforms.

A report published by the Centre for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University pointed out that there has been an “explosion of advocacy” on Twitter in the past two years in Saudi Arabia. The move to social media has been spearheaded by young women who embraced the platforms as increasingly important tools for change.

The report said more than 40% of the 6.3 million Saudis on Twitter in 2016 were women. Many accounts are anonymous and tweets are posted in both Arabic and English.

Ten of the most widely known women activists in Saudi Arabia have amassed more than

1.2 million followers between them. Twitter is viewed as the “most effective and influential social network for Saudi society,” said the report, published during the Commission on the Status of Women in March.

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