Senior Saudi Cleric: Abaya Is No Longer Necessary Attire For Saudi Women

A signal to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to press further on modernizing Saudi Arabia, that the cleric are not going to object?

The cleric supports modesty in women but not a required wearing of the abaya.  He cites examples of Muslim women worldwide who do not wear abaya’s,  a global outlook instead of insular.

The abaya is a black outer garment that covers the whole body except the face, feet, and hands.

Saudi women need not wear the abaya – the loose-fitting, full-length robes symbolic of religious faith – a senior member of the top Muslim clerical body said, another indication of the Kingdom’s efforts towards modernisation.

On his radio programme, Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars, said Muslim women should dress modestly, but this did not necessitate wearing the abaya.

“More than 90 per cent of pious Muslim women in the Muslim world do not wear abayas,” Sheikh Mutlaq said on Friday (Feb 9). “So we should not force people to wear abayas.”

While not necessarily signalling a change in the law, the statement is the first of its kind from a senior religious figure.

It follows the recent pattern of freedoms the Kingdom has been witnessing with the ascent of young Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to power.

Only the government-appointed clerics associated with the Council of Senior Scholars are allowed to issue fatwas, or Islamic legal opinions. Their interpretations of Islamic law form the basis of Saudi Arabia’s legal system.

Saudi women have started wearing more colorful abayas in recent years, the light blues and pinks in stark contrast with the traditional black. Open abayas over long skirts or jeans are also becoming more common in some parts of the country.

The trend marks a major change in the last couple of years. In 2016, a Saudi woman was detained for removing her abaya on a main street in the capital of Riyadh. Local media reported that she was detained after a complaint was filed with the religious police.

The Kingdom has seen an expansion in women’s rights recently, such as the decision passed to allow women to attend mixed public sporting events and the announcement that Saudi Arabia would grant them the right to drive.  StraitsTimes

The abaya is an all-enveloping garment worn over clothes, it has been ridiculed as looking like walking black garbage bags.  It is widely considered a mark of oppression.


The abaya is a long, voluminous robe worn over other clothing by many Muslim women, particularly in the Arab Gulf states. It covers from the neck to the feet, covering even the  wearer’s shoes from view, with sleeves extending to the wrists. The abaya is traditionally black in color, and is usually worn with a light, matching veil called a shayla. According to Al-Qasimi,
“the ‘abaya is the predominant form of female dress throughout the Arab Gulf states,” and “donning the ‘abaya constitutes a veiling practice and is an institutionalized form of dress that is socio-legally implemented by the state” (46). Saudi Arabia has the strictest policy toward veiling, in keeping with its Wahhabi religious police, effectively requiring women in most regions of the country to wear an abaya in public spaces (Ambah). Other countries, such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, do not require women to wear the abaya, although it is the official national dress and women are encouraged to dress conservatively (Sharp).

Conflicting accounts of the abaya’s origins exist in current writing. Many authors claim the abaya is a centuries- or millennia-old Saudi Arabian tradition (al-Qasimi 46; Kaur-Jones). However, other experts offer a different story, describing the abaya’s ascendance in Saudi culture as a relatively new trend, emerging only in the twentieth century. Leila al-Bassam, a professor of traditional clothing and textiles at Riyadh University, explains that the black abaya “came to Saudi Arabia from Iraq or Syria more than 75 years ago, as did most textiles and goods at the time” (qtd. in Ambah). Abayas became popular when King Abdul-Aziz al-Saud distributed them as gifts to tribal leaders around the kingdom in the early 1930’s, when the country was first united under the al-Saud monarchy. Gradually, the abaya supplanted regional costumes as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Vice began to enforce a strict interpretation of the Islamic dress code across Saudi Arabia (Ambah).

Al-Bassam is not the only woman to describe these events; her account of the abaya’s rise is echoed in interviews with elderly Saudi women in Rima Al-Mukhtar’s Sayidaty article, “Saudi Women are Expressing it Through an Abaya Evolution.” The black abayas “came from Turkey, Iraq, or Syria 80 years ago,” the article explains (36). Seventy-eight year-old Nazeera Sadek relates that women never wore the abaya when she was a child, but they also rarely left home (qtd. in al-Mukhtar 37). When they did, “they used to wear a special cloth designed especially for men which we call meshlah” (37). Another woman, Fatima, 82, of Mecca, said that “women used to wear conservative colored local costumes and covered their hair with a veil” (37). When Fatima’s mother would visit friends or the mosque, she would go “in a normal robe, only adding a scarf on her hair,” but as Fatima grew older, “we started wearing a semi-abaya which was like a big scarf that we wrapped around our bodies when we left the house” (37).  LawrenceEdu

Photo by Lars Plougmann

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