Saudi Arabia

Long robes not necessary attire for Saudi women – senior cleric

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 February, 2018, 7:59pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 February, 2018, 10:28pm

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.

Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars, said Muslim women should dress modestly, but this did not necessarily mean 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. “So we should not force people to wear abayas.”

While not 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 country 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 fatwa, or Islamic legal opinions. Their interpretations of Islamic law form the basis of Saudi Arabia’s legal system.

Saudi women have started wearing more colourful abayas in recent years, instead of 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 past couple of years. In 2016, a Saudi woman removed her abaya on a main street in Riyadh. Local media reported that she was detained after a complaint was filed with the religious police.

The country 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 they would be granted the right to drive.

Despite these changes, Saudi Arabia is regularly criticised for its draconian constraints on women, such as the guardianship system, which requires a male family member to grant permission for a woman to marry, study abroad, travel and undertake many other activities.