For Cloaked Saudi Women, Color Is the New Black

By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 28, 2007

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- Manal Fageeh never liked the abaya, the long black cloak she was forced to begin wearing at 13. She resented the fact that it was obligatory for women in Saudi Arabia, and the black absorbed heat in the often-scorching climate.

When Fageeh, a health industry executive, appeared at a recent business conference in a floor-length white abaya made of light cotton and monogrammed with an M, some of the attendees were shocked, she said. But others were inspired.

"When I saw her, I said to myself, 'Yes! This is right,' " said Manal al-Sharif, an editor at al-Madina, a Jiddah-based newspaper. "Nothing in Islam imposes black on us. And I decided to make a brown abaya for myself."

Saudi women have long been known in the West for their all-enveloping black attire, widely considered a mark of their oppression. But Sharif and Fageeh are among a growing number of women and girls here who are rethinking and reinventing the abaya to more closely reflect their personalities and religious beliefs.

The change is most striking in Jiddah, the kingdom's most cosmopolitan city, where many young women now wear their head scarves around their shoulders and leave their abayas open to reveal pants and T-shirts. Medical students here often forgo the abaya altogether, frequenting malls and coffee shops in brightly colored head scarves and white knee-length lab coats over jeans.

Abayas with patches of fluorescent color, floral patterns, animal prints, embroidery and even zodiac signs have started to show up in other cities as well, prompting clerics to criticize the trend and reiterate that abayas were meant to deflect attention, not attract it.

The redefinition of the abaya mirrors the greater, though still limited, personal freedoms allowed in the kingdom over the past five years. A major factor in the change was the involvement of young Saudis in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Many people began to question the official Wahhabi ideology that was believed to have partly inspired the hijackers and that had long dictated the country's ultraconservative lifestyle.

Saudi women bear the brunt of that puritanical ideology. They are not allowed guardianship over themselves and need male permission to marry or travel. They cannot drive or work alongside men and are forced to cover up with the abaya in public.

Since shortly after the first girls schools opened here in 1955, the abaya has been mandatory beginning in middle school. Until several years ago, members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the enforcement arm of the Wahhabi establishment, patrolled streets and malls with sticks, making sure that women were properly veiled, that men and women who were not related did not mingle and that stores closed during prayer times. But the committee's influence has waned since the Sept. 11 attacks, and its bearded members are rarely seen in Jiddah these days.

"You cannot separate what is happening with the abaya from other issues related to women, including women's appearance in the workforce and having more say in their affairs," said Saad al-Sowayan, a professor of folklore and anthropology at King Saud University in Riyadh, the capital.

Until recently, the abaya was a plain black robe that women kept by the door and wore like a coat over their clothes when they left the house.

Today, abayas are often stylish, personalized wraps that women enjoy being seen in, said Thana Addas, an abaya designer. Addas's creations, many made with material from international fashion houses such as Roberto Cavalli, Burberry and Fendi and decorated with Swarovski crystals, can sell for more than $1,000.

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