People Stop And Stare As Saudi Woman Walks Through Riyadh Mall Without Abaya
Challenging society and its rules, a Saudi woman made scores of people stop and stare as she walked confidently through a Riyadh mall in her high heels and without a body-shrouding abaya.
The abaya is a black over-garment for women in the ultra-conservative Islamic kingdom, and is seen as a symbol of piety.
De facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hinted during an interview last year that the dress code may soon be relaxed as it is not mandatory in Islam. The practice, however, continues.
Subsequently, some women held a rare social media protest, posting pictures of themselves wearing the garment inside out. Many others now where the robe in bright colours or keep the cloaks open in the front.
However, the cultural rebellion was taken a step further by 33-year-old Mashael al-Jaloud as she stopped wearing the robe. As she walked through the mall, she was met with several questions. While some asked if she was famous, others wanted to know if she was a model.
In recent months, only a handful of women have abandoned the abaya.
“There Are No Clear Laws, No Protection”
The abaya has existed for thousands of years but became obligatory only in the recent years, even for non-Muslim women living in the kingdom. The now-neutered religious police had once fanatically enforced the dress code. In a patriarchal nation where the robe is often associated with chastity, uncovered women often have to face random harassment.
“There are no clear laws, no protection. I might be at risk, might be subjected to assault from religious fanatics because I am without an abaya,” NDTV quoted Jaloud as saying.
She had posted a video on Twitter in July revealing that she was barred from entering another Riyadh mall without the abaya. She was unsuccessful in persuading the guards by playing Prince Mohammed’s television interview, in which he says that women can wear “decent, respectful clothing”, and not necessarily an abaya.
The mall, in response to her post, tweeted that they would not permit “violators of public morals” to enter.
Condemning her on Twitter, a Saudi Royal called her a publicity seeker and demanded that she be punished for the “provocative” act.
At a Riyadh supermarket, Jaloud was threatened by a fully-veiled woman, who warned her that she would call the police.
Although she remains defiant, Jaloud has to wear an abaya and headscarf to work, to ensure that she does not lose her job. On its website, the Saudi labour ministry says that working women must be “modest, well-covered” and should not wear anything “transparent”.
Unlike several others, Jaloud says that the abaya is “not linked to religion”.
“If it was, Saudi women wouldn’t take them off when they go outside the kingdom,” she said.