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> May 30, 2007
For Cloaked Saudi Women, Color Is the New Black
By Faiza Saleh Ambah
JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- Manal Fageeh never
liked the abaya, the long black cloak she was forced to begin
wearing at 13. She resented the fact that it was obligatory for
women in Saudi Arabia, and the black absorbed heat in the
When Fageeh, a health industry executive, appeared at a recent
business conference in a floor-length white abaya made of light
cotton and monogrammed with an M, some of the attendees were
shocked, she said. But others were inspired.
"When I saw her, I said to myself, 'Yes! This is right,'
" said Manal al-Sharif, an editor at al-Madina, a
Jiddah-based newspaper. "Nothing in Islam imposes black on
us. And I decided to make a brown abaya for myself."
Saudi women have long been known in the West for their
all-enveloping black attire, widely considered a mark of their
oppression. But Sharif and Fageeh are among a growing number of
women and girls here who are rethinking and reinventing the abaya
to more closely reflect their personalities and religious beliefs.
The change is most striking in Jiddah, the kingdom's most
cosmopolitan city, where many young women now wear their head
scarves around their shoulders and leave their abayas open to
reveal pants and T-shirts. Medical students here often forgo the
abaya altogether, frequenting malls and coffee shops in brightly
colored head scarves and white knee-length lab coats over jeans.
Abayas with patches of fluorescent color, floral patterns, animal
prints, embroidery and even zodiac signs have started to show up
in other cities as well, prompting clerics to criticize the trend
and reiterate that abayas were meant to deflect attention, not
The redefinition of the abaya mirrors the greater, though still
limited, personal freedoms allowed in the kingdom over the past
five years. A major factor in the change was the involvement of
young Saudis in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Many people began to
question the official Wahhabi ideology that was believed to have
partly inspired the hijackers and that had long dictated the
country's ultraconservative lifestyle.
Saudi women bear the brunt of that puritanical ideology. They are
not allowed guardianship over themselves and need male permission
to marry or travel. They cannot drive or work alongside men and
are forced to cover up with the abaya in public.
Since shortly after the first girls schools opened here in 1955,
the abaya has been mandatory beginning in middle school. Until
several years ago, members of the Commission for the Promotion of
Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the enforcement arm of the
Wahhabi establishment, patrolled streets and malls with sticks,
making sure that women were properly veiled, that men and women
who were not related did not mingle and that stores closed during
prayer times. But the committee's influence has waned since the
Sept. 11 attacks, and its bearded members are rarely seen in
Jiddah these days.
"You cannot separate what is happening with the abaya from
other issues related to women, including women's appearance in the
workforce and having more say in their affairs," said Saad
al-Sowayan, a professor of folklore and anthropology at King Saud
University in Riyadh, the capital.
Until recently, the abaya was a plain black robe that women kept
by the door and wore like a coat over their clothes when they left
Today, abayas are often stylish, personalized wraps that women
enjoy being seen in, said Thana Addas, an abaya designer. Addas's
creations, many made with material from international fashion
houses such as Roberto Cavalli, Burberry and Fendi and decorated
with Swarovski crystals, can sell for more than $1,000.
Many conservatives see the new abaya as sinful, and orthodox
clerics have issued fatwas, or edicts, decreeing that the robes
must be dark, loose and shapeless.
The varied views here on women's dress stem from different
interpretations of Koranic verses and hadith, anecdotes about
Islam's prophet Muhammad and his followers that are considered an
important source of religious practice and law. Though there is no
consensus among Muslims regarding what constitutes proper dress,
most believe that God ordered women to wear loose clothing that
covers their contours.
The first verse in the Koran that deals with the Islamic dress
code for women says: "O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy
daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks
close round them (when they go abroad). That will be better, so
that they may be recognized and not annoyed. Allah is ever
The day that verse came to Muhammad from Allah, according to
hadith, women walked to dawn prayers "looking like
crows." Ahmad al-Mussaed, a geography professor and the
author of several books on traditional clothing, said Muslim women
should therefore dress in black abayas to follow the example of
women during the time of the prophet.
But some Muslims, including Sharif, the newspaper editor, say the
women were said to resemble crows not because they were wearing
black but because they were walking in the dark.
Sharif, 39, said it is possible for a woman to flout God's orders
even if she's wearing a black abaya. She said she dresses
conservatively in hats, long jackets and scarves even when she
travels outside the country. "God ordered women to dress
modestly, to be respectable and to avoid provoking lust. Many
young women here wear the abaya and yet are all about
At a mall on fashionable Tahlia Street recently, a line of young
men trailed three fully covered young women wearing the niqab, or
face veil, with slits that exposed only their eyes. The women, who
had stopped to look at cellphone accessories, wore tight black
abayas, green and blue contact lenses, heavy mascara and eyeliner,
and strong perfume.
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, said
Leila al-Bassam, a professor of traditional clothing and textiles
at Riyadh University. The robes caught on in the kingdom after
King Abdul-Aziz, who conquered the country's disparate regions and
formed a state in 1932, distributed them as presents to various
tribal leaders, said Mussaed, the geography professor.
Before that, women wore modest but often colorful regional
costumes, and in the more conservative areas did not leave the
house until they were married, Bassam said.
As the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention
of Vice started enforcing the dress code across the country, the
abaya slowly supplanted the traditional regional costumes and
became the national dress.
On weekends, 20-year-old business student Laila Yamani replaces
the abaya she wears in town with capri jeans and T-shirts at the
beach resorts where young men and women wear Western clothes and
mingle freely, far from official eyes.
Yamani said she was excited when she went shopping with her mother
for her first abaya when she was 13. "It was like I was grown
up," she said.
Now, like many Saudi women, Yamani unwraps her head scarf and
removes her abaya as soon as she boards a plane leaving the
Sharif, the editor, called such behavior an instance of Saudi
Arabia's split personality. "We act one way in Saudi Arabia
and differently when we travel," she said. "As if God is
to be observed only here."
Copyright 2007, Washingtonpost Newsweek Interactive and The
Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
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