It felt strange.
The abaya (عباية) or ‘cloak’ – perceived by many to be a symbol of oppression, and unique to the country in which I found myself living – became a tool for expression, creativity, and even elegance among us women.
On hot days, it was incredibly annoying because it stifled any wind that fought to pass through its silk veneer and provide sought after relief. On lazy days, it served as a quick cover for the lack of effort put into my wardrobe as I strolled through the mall.
In a significant, yet often unspoken way, the abaya united us women through the experiences of buying it, wearing it, loving it, and hating it.
To my surprise, I quickly found that my feelings towards the abaya weren’t unique to my perspective as a non-Saudi woman. In fact, it remains a point of debate and contention for many Saudi women. With some embracing it as a cultural heritage symbol and an identifier of their nation, and others enduring it as one endures wearing a bra.
It’s worn because you’re told by society, by family, or by a spouse to wear it. However, one quickly frees oneself of its stifling confines once a “safe space” is reached. I first realized this dichotomy while flying from Riyadh to Dubai. Dozens of Saudi women cloaked in the abaya and the niqab as we boarded the flight seemed to disappear as we disembarked. Now they were donning jeans, fitted tops, flower dresses, and hijabs. The abayas had been stuffed into designer handbags for the flight back to Saudi Arabia.
The fact is, it’s complicated. Why do we constantly try to simplify such complex issues?
It may seem like a simple (sometimes adorned) black cloak, but in reality a whole host of meanings, ideas, emotions, stories, and controversies are stitched throughout. The abaya, despite what many in the West believe, is not the rallying point for female activists in the country either.
While researching feminism in Saudi Arabia, I came across several women in the country who are dealing with women’s issues – from activist Manal al-Sharif to film director, Haifaa al-Mansour. However, it’s not just prominent activists that are driving the conversation forward, everyday women are as well, and naturally they have their own ideas of what feminism is and what it should be in the context of Saudi Arabia.
Huda, a twenty-seven-year-old journalist interviewed by anthropologist , Amelie Le Renard in 2005, stated that she “did not agree with the liberals” regarding eradicating gender segregation in the country, particularly in the work place. For Huda, the liberalists go too far, and seek to erase Saudi “identity” in which gender segregation, as well as the abaya, are an integral part of its customs and traditions. Huda also stated she didn’t agree with the “rigorists” who want to keep women from participating in the work force, or from having mobility. Huda concluded, “I’m a Muslim woman and a Saudi woman, even if I’m wearing jeans.”
Western feminist discourse tends to label acts that counter the norms of society – such as wearing a shoulder abaya (usually more fitted and sequined) instead of a traditional head abaya – as organized “forms of resistance,” but among most Saudi women these actions are natural criticisms and reactions against what they see as illogical regulations that have no founding in Islam.
For fear of being labeled “Westernized,” women do not necessarily publicly criticize or act against elements of their society that they perhaps deem as “unfair.” When they do offer criticism or act against a norm of society, as with the abaya, women tend to do so for two reasons, 1) to reorganize “a gap between their convictions and their practices,” and 2) to question “the way in which official religious institutions define Islamic principles.”
Some Saudi women essentially do not see the issues that Western feminists tend to focus on, such as the covering of women with the abaya or the niqab, as the prime issues to target. Sabria Jawhar, a Saudi journalist stated to Isobel Coleman, “It’s my choice to wear the niqab, I wear it to show respect to my family and my culture of Medina…I wear it because I want to tell those Saudi women who wear the niqab, and for 99 percent of them it’s not their choice, that they can make it even wearing the niqab. The niqab shouldn’t be a hindrance. It shouldn’t prevent them from following their dreams. It shouldn’t veil their minds.”
The issues between feminist discourses in Saudi, both domestically and internationally, are complex and sometimes very divisive, particularly when this discourse is seen as being influenced by the West. This was exemplified in 2005, when Karen Hughes, then U.S. Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy attended a town hall meeting at Dar al-Hekma College, a female-only school in Jeddah. When Hughes began to speak about the driving ban, stating that Saudi women should be able to drive in order to “be full and equal participants in society,” several of the attendees defended the ban and criticized Hughes’ approach.
According to Saudi “Islamic feminists,” women’s rights already exist under Islam and within Shari’a, however many women do not know about them, and certain Saudi traditions and cultural practices hinder their emergence in Saudi society. Bayan Mahmound Zahran – a thirty-year-old Jeddah lawyer, and the first Saudi woman to open her own law firm in the country – lectured at the Hawa’a’s Rights lecture in April 2016 about women’s rights under the current legal structure. The lecture was filled with women of all walks of life. Contrary to beliefs in the Western world, the focus of female lawyers, like Zahran, is not to expand “rights for Saudi women” but instead to grow “awareness among ordinary Saudi women, of the legal rights they do have,” as well as showing them how to claim them.
Perhaps one of the best explanations regarding the complexities surrounding feminist discourse and women’s rights in the kingdom comes from Saudi anthropologist Mai Yamani. She stated in 2008 that the Saudi youth she interacted with for her study “experienced a clash between a national, rigorous socialization and the uncertainties and promises stemming from wider access to different cultural influences.” For these youth, “Islam was the stable and unchallenged base of their identity,” but this didn’t mean that they didn’t feel discomfort with the “rigid conception of gender roles and were searching for a compromise between their personal expectations and the demands of family and society.”
Ultimately, feminist discourse in the country is not black-and-white – as feminists v. anti-feminists, or even “Islamic feminists” v. “secular feminists” – but is a complex renegotiation exercise within Saudi society, as it confronts modernization, consumerism, security-challenges, cultural influences, and economic realities.
The abaya is just another manifestation of this complexity.
To read more about women in Saudi Arabia, or feminism in a non-Western context, check out this great article by the National Geographic and my article published by The Plaid Zebra.