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Saudi Women Are Breaking Free From the Black Abaya


Saudi Women Are Breaking Free From the Black Abaya

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia—Saudi women today are wearing clothes that, a few years ago, could have landed them in trouble with the police.

Many are abandoning the plain black version of the traditional abaya, a loose, body-covering dress that all Saudi women wear in public over their clothing to comply with decency laws. In its place, they are opting for conservative but creative alternatives: sporty jumpsuits, business-cut robes and even kimonos.

The wardrobe change has drawn grumbling from some conservative Saudis, including women, the vast majority of whom still wear traditional black abayas. Outside relatively cosmopolitan cities such as Jeddah or Riyadh, women could still face harassment for violating dress codes deeply rooted in Saudi traditions.

More Saudi women are searching for stylish or practical substitutes for traditional abayas.


amel pain/EPA/Shutterstock

But some Saudi women say they sense cultural norms changing on the ground as 34-year-old Crown Prince

Mohammed bin Salman

moves to open this conservative society to the outside world. Women are driving on Saudi streets, jogging by the seaside, and working in jobs once reserved for men, such as the military and police.

Loosening Up

Saudi women are experimenting with different styles of the traditional robe they all wear, the abaya.

1930s-90s: Only the traditional black abaya was socially acceptable for most women. Full body and sleeve length, with a black head scarf and face cover, or niqab.

2000-10: Colored abayas gain popularity, first starting with neutral colors and matching headscarves.

2010-15: Abayas get a little more colorful, with more women wearing blue, burgundy and dark green ones with matching headscarves. Abayas become more form-fitting; some designs include belts.

2016: With religious police disempowered, colorful abayas get lighter in color with more vibrant prints. Women wear headscarves more loosely or simply have them around their necks.

2018: Makeshift abayas become more common, including cardigans and kimonos. Traditional abayas get shorter, to midcalf and forearm lengths.

It is only natural, they say, to find stylish or practical substitutes for traditional abayas as women assert themselves in public spaces long closed to expressions of feminine identity and personality.

Sarah Taibah, a 30-year-old actress in Jeddah, said she began wearing long cardigans or kimonos as a substitute for an abaya about four years ago. She has grown even more comfortable in breaking conventions since then and wears a light knee-length yellow fall coat with slits on the side when she skateboards to run errands.

“I feel like it has become more socially acceptable and people are opening up,” Ms. Taibah said of wearing something beyond an abaya.

At a music concert in Jeddah recently, young women sat atop men’s shoulders and donned loose-fitting, colorful abayas, worn openly so their clothes underneath showed. Videos of them circulated widely on social media.

Doha Nahas, a 30-year-old event planner, once got judging looks for wearing anything other than a black abaya, such as her fuchsia floral-print kimono. Women would approach her in the mall and warn her to dress more modestly.

“These days, no one looks at you,” Ms. Nahas said. She hasn’t bought an abaya in several years, preferring long cardigans or kimonos from European brands such as Zara or Topshop.

“In fact, more women are coming up to me to ask me where I got my kimono from,” she said.

Ms. Nahas and others said they felt empowered when Prince Mohammed said in 2018 that abayas aren’t mandatory under Saudi or Islamic law. He said women must “wear decent, respectful clothing,” just as men are required to do.

Saudi men generally wear a thobe, an ankle-length tunic that covers their arms. But it is optional, and they can dress how they want as long as they cover their torsos and legs to below the knee.

Saudi women have worn the abaya since before the kingdom was unified in 1932, a tradition imported from Turkey during the reign of the Ottoman Empire. They have long adapted it for their own lifestyles, said

Khadija Nader,

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a lecturer at Umm Al Qura University in Mecca who has written about the history of traditional Saudi garments.

In the early 2000s, Saudi women began wearing abayas in neutral colors such as beige. By 2010, blue, burgundy and green abayas emerged, with slimmer cuts and waist-defining belts becoming more socially accepted as well.

A critical moment came in 2016, when King Salman stripped the religious police of arrest powers, removing the enforcers of the Saudi dress code. Almost immediately, women became more comfortable wearing their headscarves loosely or not at all, while others began experimenting with jackets, kimonos and abayas that show the ankle and calf.

The traditional abaya remains a pillar of cultural norms for women. At a summer festival in Taif, a conservative mountaintop city located 100 miles away from Jeddah, nearly all the women wore traditional abayas, many with a face covering called the niqab.

“I don’t believe wearing colored abayas is correct. They are flashy and inappropriate,” said

Maram Mohammad,

27, who was attending the festival with her family. “The black abaya with its head and face cover represent Saudi identity, and it’s sad that we are losing that.”

Joggers in Jeddah last year. Abaya makers have begun designing sporty versions for women who jog or cycle—taboos that are increasingly broken.


amer hilabi/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The line between a creative abaya and an indecent one remains blurry, but the government is loosening up its strict dress code and moving away from the traditional abaya. After announcing it would offer visas to tourists for the first time, the government released new public decency guidelines saying that “women are free to choose modest clothing.” The definition of public decency remains open to interpretation by local authorities.

The government is loosening its strict dress code and has issued guidelines that say ‘women are free to choose modest clothing.’



A television reporter faced a social-media backlash and a Saudi government investigation when she wore a white abaya that was open in the middle, revealing tight jeans. She fled the country, according to local media reports.

Rulers of this deeply conservative kingdom have jailed and tortured women’s rights activists, The Wall Street Journal has reported, citing the detainees’ families. But the Saudi government publicly supports what it calls women’s empowerment initiatives, and it recently allowed adult women to travel freely without permission from a male guardian.

Some abaya brands are catering to growing numbers of women in the Saudi workforce. Women’s labor participation rate was up almost 9% in 2018, the government says.

Orange Blossom, a brand in Jeddah and Riyadh, designs modern abayas that feature lapels, buttons and pockets and are shorter.

Zeina Adra,

the brand’s founder and designer, said sales are up 30% this year compared with last, with ankle and midcalf length representing 85% of total sales.

Some Saudi women are opting for conservative but creative alternatives to abayas, such as a business-cut robe.


Orange Blossom

“They come in asking for two things: formal abayas like the blazer or trench coat abaya for meetings and events, and then simpler everyday ones,” she said.

Abaya makers have also begun designing sporty versions for women who jog or cycle—taboos that are increasingly broken. Jumpsuit abayas are loose-fitting, often made from dri-fit material, and zip-up fully.

“They are just so practical,” said Shatha Al-Misayib, 40, who was wearing a navy-blue jumpsuit abaya and a headband with her hair in a ponytail instead of a scarf while power walking recently on Jeddah’s seaside promenade.

Saudi designers and clothing makers say Saudi women are now putting as much thought into their wardrobe of abayas as they do the clothes they wear underneath, which are often luxury brands and European cut.

Noha Sindi, a Saudi personal stylist, said she styles her clients’ abayas as she would a dress.

“I select different cuts, styles and colors to suit each client’s personality and body type,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll accessorize it with a belt, sometimes I’ll keep it open as part of the outfit.”

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