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Saudi women join 'inside out' protest against abaya rules

Sick of being told what to wear by the state, Saudis have been posting images of themselves wearing abayas inside-out
A woman uses her laptop during the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh. (Reuters)

In an act of defiance and subversion, Saudi women are turning their government-enforced abaya robes inside-out, a protest against the clothing regulations imposed on them by the state.

All week, women have taken to Twitter to share pictures of themselves wearing the loose-fitting garment, which is traditionally black, reversed and showing the stitching and lining, coupled with the hashtag #Abaya_Insideout.

Translation: Starting today, I'm going to wear my abaya inside out in protest of customs and state regulations that put us under threat if we dare to show our identities. We have to work full time wearing the niqab and abaya, due to being in a mixed workplace. This load is too heavy on a human being. #ForcedToWearIt

.Translation: In a peaceful protest method, we are women who reject all customs and laws that blur our existence and our identity

Every woman in Saudi Arabia is expected to wear an abaya and hijab whilst out in public, regulations that are enforced on the streets by the kingdom's religious police. Foreigners are expected to wear the abaya, but not the hijab.

Enforcement of the rules differs according to region, however.

In the Red Sea city of Jeddah, for instance, authorities are less likely to clamp down on women's dress than in the ultra-conservative capital, Riyadh.

In 2017 a Saudi model known as Khulood was arrested after being seen wearing a T-shirt and skirt whilst walking through a historic fort in the specially preserved heritage village of Ushaiqer, north of Riyadh. She has since been released without charge.

Broken promises

In recent months, it appeared that regulations on women's dress would be relaxed nationwide.

Since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman became de facto leader of Saudi Arabia last year, the kingdom has been at pains to promote the impression that social reforms are empowering women in the country.

Most notably, in June the kingdom finally allowed women to drive. Saudi women had been calling for the right since the 1990s, but though their wishes were eventually fulfilled, many of those who campaigned for it have subsequently been arrested and detained by authorities, along with other women's rights activists.

Clothing too, was flagged as being part of the young crown prince's "reform agenda".

In March, the heir to the Saudi throne reiterated during a television interview with CBS that women were expected to dress modestly in public. However, he intimated that authorities would stop forcing women to wear the abaya.

“The laws are very clear and stipulated in the laws of sharia [Islamic law] that women wear decent, respectful clothing, like men,” bin Salman said.

“This, however, does not particularly specify a black abaya or a black head cover. The decision is entirely left to a woman to decide what type of decent and respectful attire she chooses to wear.”

Similarly, Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq, a member of senior religious body the Council of Senior Scholars, also stated: "More than 90 percent of pious Muslim women in the Muslim world do not wear abayas, so we should not force people to wear abayas."

Despite these comments, such reforms have yet to take effect for women in the kingdom, whether Saudi or foreign, and this latest online campaign is a protest against promises unfulfilled.

Originally, the campaign spread within Saudi Arabia. But soon, Saudi women outside the kingdom were sharing pictures online in solidarity.

Malak al-Shehri, a women’s rights activist who was arrested in 2016 after posting images of her removing her niqab (face veil) on Twitter, also joined the online protest.

"No one will understand the feeling protesting oppression gives you except those who do it," she tweeted

"It is a great feeling to express your rejection even through the simplest of actions to provoke those who oppose your choices and your freedom."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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