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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Marriam Mossalli: changing the way the world views Saudi women

"Saudi women are not just a media avatar – that girl dressed all in black, covered, uneducated, walking a few steps behind a man. We are so much more than that"

In January, only a week after putting out the word, Marriam Mossalli received more than a thousand photo submissions of street-style fashion from women across Saudi Arabia. “It was so much more than I ever expected; it was insane,” she says.

The result of all those photos is Under The Abaya: Street Style from Saudi Arabia. It is, perhaps, the first-ever coffee-table book of its kind, featuring photos of everyday women who live across Saudi Arabia, celebrating their style and love of fashion through a “peephole into the Kingdom’s regional fashion scene”.

The book, which will be included in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s costume library, was conceived and edited by Mossalli, a fashion journalist turned entrepreneur, who founded luxury consultancy firm Niche Arabia as well as the ShoesandDrama blog. A second edition of Under the Abaya has already been planned, which is ­expected to be ­released in time for Eid. “We are currently hosting launch events across Saudi,” Mossalli tells me after wrapping up the book’s launch in Dubai last week. She was headed to her hometown of Jeddah, where two bloggers, an entrepreneur and a photographer – all female, all Saudi, all with submissions in the book – will be supporting her at the book’s launch there, before Mossalli leaves for Riyadh and then Khobar.

Author Marriam Mossalli
Author Marriam Mossalli

“This book is created by these women. There’s no book without their readiness to take part – I just put a name to it – so I always make sure to have as many of them there as possible when I’m introducing the book and its purpose,” she says. Normalising the Saudi woman – and normalising female participation across Saudi Arabia – is not only at the heart of the book; it’s also at the core of everything that she envisions and implements. When she organised the first female-only sports day last year, held at King Abdullah Sports City, more than 10,000 women showed up to take part. She also directed the short movie Under the Abaya, which celebrates Saudi women as business pioneers.

Under the Abaya book
Under the Abaya book

“This isn’t just a fashion book. Don’t look at it as something so one-dimensional. Because here’s the thing: Saudi women are not just a media avatar – that girl dressed all in black, covered, uneducated, walking a few steps behind a man. We are so much more than that,” says Mossalli.

Showing the “outside world”, as she puts it, that a Saudi Arabian woman is as capable as any other, anywhere in the world, not only in terms of fashion and style, but also from the perspective of ambition and achievement, is something that comes across on the book’s pages. “These photographs are of students, teachers, doctors, engineers, dreamers, pioneers,” says Mossalli. “It’s very important to understand that these women didn’t just get up one day and start accomplishing things; they’ve always been doing things. What’s different now is we have the Saudi Vision 2030 to work towards, and moderate attitudes are spreading and taboos are dying out.”

Two years ago, when she had floated the idea for the book, she was met with a lot of hesitation, especially in terms of showing women’s faces. Talk of cropping the photos, so that only the clothes would show, negated the very purpose of the book. “In just two years, there has been a shift,” she says. “People don’t want to hide anymore. The new generation is stepping up. Young people want change.”

And these young people, she says, know what’s “in” when it comes to the world of fashion. They are global consumers and global citizens – even if not all of them travel – thanks to the advent of social media and the image-heavy powers of Snapchat, Instagram and the like, explains Mossalli.

There are plenty of abayas featured in the book – from the traditional and the ­embellished, to outer garments that simply hint at the their original style. But there’s also ­everything else: pantsuits, ­activewear, midi-skirts, edgy sneakers, ripped denim and vintage sweatshirts. It’s a cornucopia of street-style, almost comparable to the images from the runways of New York, London, Milan and Paris.

Submissions are always welcome, because the second edition of the book will be double in size, at more than 500 pages. “This book is not for locals; it’s for the outside world. We already know how we look and what we can achieve. We want others to know now,” explains Mossalli. “We want the world to meet the progressive Saudi woman, who is fashionable, who is embedded in her heritage and fully confident with her own sense of cultural identity. We are as interesting as the changes that are currently happening in the country.”

Under The Abaya is available from Amazon and will soon to be stocked for Dh200 in Virgin stores across the UAE. All proceeds will go towards a fashion design scholarship fund, which will offers scholarships to four universities across Saudi Arabia to help students in need.

To know more about the project or submit photographs, visit www.undertheabayaksa.com