This was going to be the second of a two-part blog series on changes in KSA over the past 3 years – but then I realized some of the topics were really worthy of a blog in their own right, so this is one is devoted to the traditional, long, loose fitting robe, otherwise known as the abaya.
To wear an abaya or not to wear an abaya? That is the question!
Abaya wearing is a HOT topic in KSA – to wear an abaya or not is one of the big water cooler topics.
Women have always worn abayas as a cultural garment in this part of the world. In the 1960s and 70s some started adopting western dress, but in the late 1970s a new law made it mandatory for women to wear an abaya in public places. From then the black abaya (robe), the niqab (face veil) and the hijab (hair covering), became commonplace and it is still what you will see the majority of Saudi women wearing when they are out and about.
The first big change that began to impact abaya wearing was a reduction in the powers in 2016 of the Mutawa, or the Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, also known as the religious police.
Founded in 1976 the Mutawa ensured strict adherence to Islamic Law and had powers to make arrests if they thought morality or public decency were not being adhered to. They could shout at women publicly, or even flick them with their canes, if they thought their hair was not covered completely or their abaya was too short.
Then in 2019 in a landmark TV interview, the Crown Prince said women could choose whether they wore black robes or face coverings. Also in 2019, along with the introduction of tourist visas, a decency law was introduced which said female tourists were no longer required to wear abayas so long as they were dressed modestly.
Over the past year there has been a noticeable shift in the number of women, and especially younger women opting to wear colored abayas which they wear in the open style – blue, green and maroon are popular, but white, pink and yellow are also making an appearance. They are also ditching the niqab and sometimes even the hijab.
Modest dress however is still required when not wearing an abaya ie – high necklines and arms, legs (and backside!) should be covered – but it does mean you can wear jeans, a top and a long jacket to go to the mall or a midi dress with long sleeves for dinner.
When I first arrived in Saudi Arabia I mostly wore black abayas, one had some blue embroidery. Then I bought a light blue linen one and a navy one with a pink and white edging for work. Now I sometimes wear an abaya and sometimes I don’t … I recently bought two new ones – a green one with a bright blue lining and a navy one with puffy white sleeves and a patterned back (see photos above). I don’t mind wearing them because I think they look quite stylish and I love the colors – they’re also easy to throw on over basic leggings and a Tee and make me look a bit more put together when I’m running round the supermarket!
It’s not just women who have to follow a dress code, it’s less strict for men but their legs and shoulders should be covered – sometimes men can wear shorts (so long as their knees are covered) but sometimes an over zealous security guard at a mall will refuse entry if they think there is too much knee on show! ;0)
Saudi men can wear western clothes, but most, and certainly always at work they wear the standard thobe (long white shirt) and shamag (red and white headdress).
And that’s a quick summary of my experience of wearing an abaya in Saudi Arabia in 2021! There’s been a definite shift and as a consequence it feels more relaxed when you go out and about.
That’s all for now – another blog will follow soon looking at tourism and the rebirth of movie-going in the Kingdom!
Until then, stay cool!