For more than a decade, Bashayer Al Shehri covered her face with a black veil in public, automatically donning the niqab like all her female relatives in Saudi Arabia. Discarding it proved surprisingly trouble-free.
“I just decided that society is changing and I’m going to just try to see, and it was so easy,” said Al Shehri, 28, a pharmacy student from the capital, Riyadh, who’s been studying in Chicago and was home for a break. “I didn’t really notice any difference of treatment of people and how they perceive me.”
A small but growing number of Saudi women are pushing the boundaries of a dress code that has shrouded women in this conservative Gulf Arab state in black from head to toe. Travel and the internet have opened them to other customs and ideas, and young, urban women are setting new trends.
While the change is incremental—Al-Shehri still wears a headscarf and drapes herself in a floor-length robe, or abaya—the sight of uncovered faces and colored abayas in Riyadh is nevertheless a beachhead for the women of Saudi Arabia as more join the workforce and take part in public life.
Curbs on the ability of religious police to make arrests have played a role, as has the drop in oil prices: Some analysts say the government can’t carry out its “Vision 2030” plan to diversify the crude-dependent economy without loosening restrictions on half its population.
“Cultural and social change is an integral part of Vision 2030, which will be critical for increasing the role of women in the economy,” said Monica Malik, chief economist at Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank.
The number of working women jumped by 50 percent between 2010 and 2015. And as women head to jobs in Riyadh and Jeddah, more are wearing white, green, purple and floral abayas that would have been considered shocking five years ago. The shift has spawned a cottage industry of dozens of Saudi women who sell unconventional robes, some in chic boutiques and others on Instagram.
When Jeddah-based designer Layla Bisharah brought her wares to a Riyadh bazaar recently, she carried only black abayas, assuming that was all that would sell in the more conservative city.
“I was surprised to see that the people next to me were selling colored abayas and people were actually buying,” Bisharah said. “I think people needed that change.”
That women see colored robes as a breakthrough reflects the guarded pace at which social freedoms are opening up in Saudi Arabia, where religious clerics influence politics and preach to millions of followers on Twitter. The kingdom remains the only country in the world where women can’t drive, and guardianship rules make them legal dependents of male relatives, meaning they can’t leave the country without permission. Out of 24 goals set in Saudi Vision 2030, only one pertains to women’s development.
So in some areas of the desert kingdom, there’s been little, if any, change in the dress code. In Buraidah, the central Saudi heartland, people on the street have been known to rebuke women who don’t wear the niqab. Even in Riyadh, many women not only cover their faces, but go so far as to sheath their hands in black gloves.
A fatwa, or edict, on the kingdom’s official website of religious rulings says abayas should not have “decoration that draws attention”; ornaments, drawings, inscriptions or labels; or “resemble the clothing of infidels or men.”
Comments last month from an official cleric suggest some measure of tolerance on the issue of color. As long it isn’t tight or sheer, “I don’t see anything wrong” with an abaya that is brown or any color that doesn’t draw attention, Sheikh Abdullah Al Manea, a member of Saudi Arabia’s Council of Senior Scholars, told Okaz newspaper.
Although the appearance of a few beige or pink abayas in a sea of black may seem insignificant from the outside, the changes in women’s dress reflect a deeper shift in Saudi society, according to Hala Aldosari, a visiting scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington D.C.
“Social networks carried debates in the last few years that influenced better awareness, particularly on women’s status and cultural influences,” Aldosari said by e-mail. “Women are highly educated, can access more information online and many taboos are being discussed online more than ever.”
On a policy level, however, “women’s issues are not a high priority for the ruling family as they still need to appease religious groups” that are more conservative, Aldosari said.
While Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman plans unprecedented economic moves such as selling shares in the state-owned oil company, his goals for women are more modest. Under the Vision 2030 blueprint he leads, the government wants to increase women’s participation in the workforce to 30 percent from 22 percent over the next 14 years. That target rate is lower than the current level in Sudan.
Whether the Saudi women’s dress code is religiously prescribed is a matter of debate. The kingdom’s official religious authority says women are required to cover their face and their hands, but many scholars say that injunction is rooted in culture, not scripture. And while the stereotypical image of a Saudi woman is a swirl of black, in parts of the kingdom’s south, the traditional garb is floral dresses and straw hats.
The notion of religious requirement has prevailed in the popular perception.
“I personally prefer to cover my face for religious reasons,” said Heba Ahmed, a MAC Cosmetics saleswoman in Riyadh. “It is a traditional society and I don’t think that is a bad thing.”
Some men even add a condition to their marriage contract stipulating that their wives must wear the niqab.
Women who dare to redefine the dress code inevitably provoke some kind of backlash among men in a profoundly patriarchal society. After four Saudi women competed in this year’s Olympics with bare faces, a hashtag erupted on Twitter saying they “don’t represent” Saudi Arabia. “We focused on women’s participation and we lost our respect for our traditions,” one man posted.
Many of the changes emboldening women in their fashion choices today were put in motion by the late King Abdullah, who appointed women to the consultative Shoura Council, lent his name to the kingdom’s first co-educational university and ordered lingerie and makeup shops to employ only women.
What began as a generational shift accelerated after oil prices plunged, said Paul Musgrave, assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
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When King Salman came to power in January 2015, the oil price rout had already cut into government revenue. Last year, the kingdom recorded a budget deficit of nearly $100 billion. As part of the plan led by Prince Mohammed, the government is phasing out energy subsidies and introducing a value-added tax, driving up the cost of living. Saudi Arabia can’t afford the same social policies in this environment, Musgrave said, and pressure for women to work will increase.
But unless they are able to “commute, travel, access and stay in jobs without a guardian’s permission,” said Aldosari of the Arab Gulf States Institute, “women will not join the workforce in any significant numbers.”
At a press conference in April, Prince Mohammed said women “must be effective and productive.” But asked if Saudi Arabia would allow women to drive—paying for drivers or taxis can devour half of a salary—he said the government can’t force something society rejects.
Even the government is testing the waters. In April, it curtailed the power of religious police that enforce gender segregation, the dress code and other rules, banning them from making arrests without regular police present.
Now, one can spend months in Riyadh without spotting a religious policeman, and strictures once vigorously enforced are easing. Women and men work alongside each other in some ministries, and foreign women leave their hair uncovered without reprimand.
“The emphasis on social change is popular with the younger generation, where there is greater support for this,” Malik said.
Al Shehri, the pharmacy student, stopped covering her face when she moved to Chicago two years ago. Returning to Riyadh to visit over the winter break, she exported that custom to her home.
When the religious police had greater authority, “it was so difficult,” she said. “Now, everything is changing, and I’m really happy for this change.”