Saudi women study film making at a university in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia March 7, 2018. Image Credit: REUTERS

Jeddah: When earlier this month Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman said that the black abaya — the loose-fitting, full-length robes symbolic of Islamic piety — is not necessary as long as their attire is “decent and respectful”, the move was hailed by many.

Under Mohammad, the country has seen an expansion in women’s rights including a decision to allow women to attend mixed public sporting events and the right to drive cars from this summer.

The Crown Prince’s statement comes a month after senior cleric Shaikh Abdullah Al Mutlaq, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars in Saudi Arabia, also said that women should not be forced to wear abayas in public.

There is yet to be an official decree—like the one that reversed a ban on women’s driving—so there hasn’t been a visible change in women’s clothing on Saudi streets yet, but women are already excited.

Gulf News decided to ask Saudi women directly what they thought of the crown prince’s latest statements.

Indian national Zeba Zaidi—who has been living in Jeddah for over 2 decades—hailed the crown prince’s statement.

“It will be a progressive decision that will give women more liberty and power to decide if they want to go out with or without an abaya,” the senior IT professor at the King Abdul Aziz University, said.

Sumaya Khan, a market analyst at Point, believes that “it is a huge step toward women empowerment. Its giving women a voice and a choice.”

Many women already believe that the abaya should not be used as a measurement of one’s decency and piety.

“As a Muslim I choose not to wear an abaya, black or coloured. I feel like a hypocrite to cover from head to toe here and then take off the abaya when I’m abroad. I also don’t think that me not wearing an abaya makes me any less of a Muslim,” said Saudi national Sahar, a third year medical student from Makkah.

Other women say they will continue to wear the abaya.

Ayesha, a teacher working at an international school in Jeddah, said: “The abaya highlights my principles rather than my body and sends the message to men that I should not be messed with,” she said.

“I think it’s important for women to cover their curves.”

Ameera Sa’ad, a Saudi national living in the city of Yanbu, says she will not like it when she sees women out in public without abayas.

“I think this will lead to an increase in indecency,” she says.

Observers believe when the change happens it will likely be seen more in major cities like Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam, before reaching smaller towns and areas.

In these big cities some women have already been seen wearing colourful abayas instead of the traditional black.

Problems could arise as the concept of modest dress could be interpreted differently by different people.

“Women will still need to dress decently, so they need to be more careful while exercising their judgement,” Zaidi says.

“With freedom comes great responsibility.”

-Sadiya is a freelance journalist based in Jeddah