In Another Win for Saudi Women, Religious Leader Calls for Relaxed Dress Code
Women who fail to wear the abaya are still subject to chastisement from police.
In Saudi Arabia, wearing the wrong clothes can be cause for punishment — at least if you’re a woman.
Despite recent relaxations of some of the rules holding back women, such as bans on driving and attending sports matches, the deeply religious country still requires all women to wear an abaya, or a loose-fitting black robe that covers the whole body, in public.
But one male religious leader is now speaking out against this law.
"More than 90% of pious Muslim women in the Muslim world do not wear abayas,” Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq, a member of the country’s Council of Senior Scholars, said on Friday. “So we should not force people to wear abayas."
According to the BBC, this marks the first time a male leader has spoken out against the dress code, and could lead to future changes in the law. But despite Mutlaq’s statement, “there is no indication that the custom might change,” Al Jazeera reports.
The statement was broadcast on a local television station, but quickly made its way to the internet, where it received mixed reviews from men and women.
“Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq must appear on television to fully clarify his remark and take back this peculiar fatwa,” one Twitter user demanded.
“The abaya is a matter of tradition in one of our regions and has become applicable to all. It is not an issue of religion,” another wrote.
Nonetheless the quote does come in the context of slowly shifting gender norms in the world’s third most gender unequal society.
Recent social reforms by the country’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have lifted bans that previously prevented women from driving, going to the movies, and attending concerts without male permission.
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Small openings in the job market, such as recently when the Saudi General Directorate of Passports posted 140 jobs openings for women, have also emerged. In 2016, around one in five women were unemployed, compared to just over one in 50 men, according to World Bank data.
As for now, it’s unclear whether Mutlaq’s statement will lead to a change in the law, according to USA Today.