Saudi cleric says abayas ‘not necessary’ for women in the kingdom

Saudi women need not wear the abaya – the loose-fitting, full-length robes to shroud their bodies in public, – a senior member of the top Muslim clerical body said, another indication of the Kingdom’s efforts towards liberalization.

On his radio programme, Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars, said Muslim women should dress modestly, but this did not necessitate wearing the abaya.

“More than 90 percent of pious Muslim women in the Muslim world do not wear abayas,” Sheikh Mutlaq said on a TV program broadcast on Friday. “So we should not force people to wear abayas.”

“As we see in Mecca and Medina, a large number of decent, religious women do not wear abayas. This in itself is bare witness that women should not be obliged to wear abayas,” said Mutlaq during the “Friday Studio” program on Nedaa al-Islam channel.

A member of the clerical body clarified that wearing an abaya is fulfilling the act of being conservative. An abaya falls under what Allah has referred to as the Jalabib in the Quran and has urged women to wear. If a woman chooses to cover her head, shoulders or otherwise with an abaya, that would be fine, Al-Arabiya English reported.

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While not necessarily signalling a change in the law, the statement is the first of its kind from a senior religious figure. It follows the recent pattern of freedoms the Kingdom has been witnessing with the ascent of young Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to power.

Only the government-appointed clerics associated with the Council of Senior Scholars are allowed to issue fatwas, or Islamic legal opinions. Their interpretations of Islamic law form the basis of Saudi Arabia’s legal system.

Saudi women have started wearing more colorful abayas in recent years, the light blues and pinks in stark contrast with the traditional black. Open abayas over long skirts or jeans are also becoming more common in some parts of the country.

The trend marks a major change in the last couple of years.

The Kingdom has seen an expansion in women’s rights recently, such as the decision passed to allow women to attend mixed public sporting events and the announcement that Saudi Arabia would grant them the right to drive.

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These are some of the many changes the country has undergone in recent months, hailed as proof of a new moderation and progressive trend in the Kingdom.

Sheikh Mutlaq’s comment sparked a host of reactions on social media, including from other clerics who backed his statement.

One Saudi Twitter user commented: “Chastity and morality should not be tied to a piece of cloth.”

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