Some describe it as a subversive initiative, others as an act of liberation. What is certain is that Saudi women are again speaking up and demanding their rights, which, as is very often the case, are not actually being denied by the Islamic religion—as is widely believed in the West—but rather by tribal traditions that the Saud dynasty has turned into laws.
In an original form of protest, for the past several days Saudi women have been tweeting photos of themselves wearing their abaya inside out (with the hashtag #insideoutabaya), affirming their rejection of the dress code imposed on them by the state. It is a simple form of protest, but one which has garnered notice among a worldwide audience.
Activist Nura Abdelkarim (@Ana3rabeya) tweeted: “Because #Saudi feminists are endlessly creative, they’ve come up with new form of protest & given it hashtag “inside-out Abaya” #العبايه_المقلوبه. They are posting pictures of selves wearing their Abayas inside-out in public as a silent objection to being pressured to wear it.”
Another women’s rights activist, Athena (@Sadax1), underlined in a tweet that this was a method of peaceful protest, and added: “We are women who are rejecting all customs and laws that obscure our existence and our identity.” A prominent figure who has joined this campaign is Malak Shehri, who was arrested in 2016 after she posted a photo of herself with her hair uncovered, not wearing a veil.
In Saudi Arabia—a country dominated ever since its creation by the alliance between the rigid Wahhabi clergy and the Saud dynasty—women in public are forced to wear an abaya, a long black gown that covers the whole body except the head, feet and hands. To cover the head, they have to wear another garment, the niqab, which covers the entire face except for the eyes. Even foreign women are forced to wear the abaya in public.
These rules are enforced with an iron fist by the Muttawi’in, the religious police that enforce the rulings of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. They are also tasked with preventing “promiscuity” in all public places. Saudi women are also not allowed to post any photos on social media in which they don’t wear the abaya. The model Khulood fell victim to these restrictions in 2017, when she was arrested for appearing in a video on social media wearing a shirt and miniskirt while taking a walk in a historic fort in the village of Ushaiqer.
Saudi women are also not allowed to open a bank account, apply for a passport or travel abroad without the permission of a man. Every woman must have a male guardian assigned to her.
The #insideoutabaya campaign is also a protest against Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been at the center of global attention for the past month and a half on account of the widespread belief that he was involved in the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The heir to the Saudi throne, a character that the Western media had all-too-hastily proclaimed “a reformer,” he had announced earlier this year that the rules regarding the dress code for women would be made less strict, as part of a process of reform aimed at modernizing the Saudi kingdom.
“The laws are very clear and stipulated in the laws of Sharia: that women wear decent, respectful clothing, like men,” Bin Salman said in an interview with CBS. He added that Sharia law “does not particularly specify a black abaya. [It] is entirely left for women to decide what type of decent and respectful attire to wear.”
Shortly after this statement, the prominent Muslim clerics Sheikh Ahmed bin Qassim al-Ghamdi and Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq—the latter a member of the Council of Senior Scholars—also affirmed that Sharia does not require wearing the abaya, not to mention an exclusively black one: “More than 90 percent of pious Muslim women in the Muslim world do not wear abayas,” al-Mutlaq said on his radio program. “So we should not force people to wear abayas.”
However, the fine words by the prince and the two clerics have not been followed by any official decisions in writing to this effect, and thus the supposed greater freedom for Saudi women—at least when it comes to dress—has remained an empty, unfulfilled promise.
Mohammed bin Salman has been the de facto ruler of the kingdom since he was named heir to the throne by his father, King Salman, and by now it is well known that he cuts an ambiguous figure. At his behest, starting from June, women were finally allowed to drive in the country, marking a victory in a battle they had been fighting for almost three decades. However, immediately afterwards, the “reformer” prince had some of the most well-known women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia arrested.