By Hannah Priest
Saudi Arabian women have staged a rare protest against restrictive clothing laws – which state that women must completely cover up in public – by posting pictures on social media of themselves wearing the traditional abaya inside out. An abaya is customarily black and covers the entire body, leaving only the head, feet and hands visible. The protesters have used the hashtag ‘#InsideOutAbaya’ to show their frustration against the strict rules that dictate the way they have to appear in public.
Strict female dress codes have been around for decades in Saudi Arabia, meaning that they have to wear clothing such as the abaya and the niqab in public for modesty reasons. Despite this, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman claimed earlier this year that there are no obligations for women to wear abayas, and that “the decision is entirely left for women to decide what type of decent and respectful attire she chooses to wear”. This comment appears to follow on from other liberal steps the Prince has recently taken, including allowing Saudi women to learn to drive and attend sporting events
Despite the government’s pushes for a more relaxed representation of Saudi Arabia to the rest of the world, women in Saudi Arabia are claiming that they have not seen a change in the way clothing rules are enforced, despite Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s statement. This has prompted a number of activists to begin wearing the abaya inside out as a protest against the authorities. Online activists have announced that this is a silent protest against the authorities, and that they will continue to wear their abayas inside out until they achieve freedom over their dress code in public.
One feminist made the statement that “they are posting pictures of [them]selves wearing their abayas inside-out in public as a silent objection to being pressured to wear it.” Malak al-Shehri, a women’s rights activist who was arrested in 2016 after posting images of herself removing her niqab on Twitter, also joined the online protest, explaining how powerful the feeling of protesting truly is, following years of discrimination and unequal treatment of Saudi women. Many see the abaya as a form of dehumanisation as it does not allow women to show any sort of individuality.
Even though the current prince does take a more liberal approach to social policy compared to his strict conservative predecessors, there is still a long way to go until equality is achieved in Saudi Arabia. There are still numerous things that Saudi women are unable to do without permission from a male guardian, including basic activities such as setting up a bank account, travelling abroad and getting married. As a result of this, the guardianship system has made Saudi Arabia one of the most gender-unequal countries in the world. Over the past few years, there has been a significant rise in Saudi female activists, matched by a crackdown on women’s rights activists across the country. With activists continuously arrested for campaigning against the socially conservative laws, it is undoubtedly still a fearful time for women in Saudi Arabia.