Can Saudi Drive into the New Look?
SAVANNAH Nov 1--Saudi Arabia has long been a place of mystery, tradition, and criticism. It is a country ruled by a male monarchy with few areas for a woman to be considered an equal, particularly when it comes to dressing. But with a new law that would allow women to drive commencing in June 2018, could this be the beginning of a new movement Saudi fashion?
This seemingly mundane act is a symbol of reform with the potential to lead the country down a road to women’s rights. If the trend mimics that of the United Arab Emirates, another Islamic country that follows elements of Shari ‘a law, this act could change everything from the end of separation of genders in public to an entirely new view on fashion.
As Saudi Arabia is an Islamic country that follows the holy book of the Quran, it is required for women in public to wear an abaya, a long black cloak that covers the entire body, and a hijab, a veil to cover the hair and neck. However, it differs slightly from region to region, and there are other variations that are more modest. But don’t be fooled, just because these women are concealed under black fabric does not mean they don’t care about style.
Fashion shows are extremely popular in the female community. They often get together at women-only events, wear their best outfits, and relax while watching a parade of models walk the runway in printed, embroidered, and even sportswear abaya collections. Whilst other Islamic countries have embraced the new look of the female Muslim community, which includes abayas in a range of colors, fabric, and silhouettes, Saudi’s remain adamant that the abaya must be closed when worn, black, and a women’s hair must always be covered. Saudi women can only express themselves with their clothing through their accessories and makeup. In fact, according to National Geographic “shoes and handbags” are often the only way to discern one woman from another.
The abaya laws are not only at odds with the right to be able to express oneself through clothing, but they are also about self-esteem. Danyah Mohammed Hassan Al-Natour, a 20-year-old woman, raised in the region of Dhahran, Saudi Arabia said, “The commonly worn abaya made me feel overweight because of how unshapely it was. It really brought me down.”
It’s nothing new that women are made to feel inferior because of social expectations about their appearance. Yet, the women’s clothing law doesn’t allow the women of Saudi Arabia the choice to wear something that makes them feel confident and empowered whether that be in an abaya or a pair of jeans.
The potential change to the driving laws has already struck a nerve. Women in Saudi already feel more empowered than ever, and fashion is starting to change.
In the fashion industry they are getting a lot more creative,” Al-Natour said, “You walk outside, and some of these abayas are haute couture pieces.” When asked about how she thinks the driving laws could potentially spur a change in women’s clothing in Saudi society, Al-Natour was skeptical. “We are in a place where the people are so used to one form of life,” she said, “Change is very difficult for them. I believe the driving law is mostly a change that came from pressure from other countries. I don’t trust that they will do much more or that they will remove the abaya law.”
This attitude causes some to wonder if it is all a façad, is this just a ploy for Saudi to appease the western world. Regardless, women are not standing down. “I’ve seen a huge boost in confidence,” Al- Natour said. Referring to small changes already underway before the new driving laws. “Most women already wear the hijab around their neck,” she added that women are now embracing the act of wearing makeup. “To the women, it's empowering but to the men, it's demeaning as physically it seems as if your prettying themselves up for them, “Al-Natour said, “They don’t realize for the women it’s a way for them to escape not being able to do the things that their counterparts can.”
Small changes are shaping the rights of Saudi women to be allowed to dress as they please. Being forced to wear a specific piece of clothing can be a symbol of oppression similar to the act of not allowing women to drive. If the people of Saudi are willing to take this step to empower women, perhaps the ultraconservative society is willing to go even further?