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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Saudi women embrace sports abayas - in pictures

Akin to a zippered jumpsuit, the sports abayas offer greater mobility for sporting activities

Colourful and oozing confidence, a sports-friendly version of the abaya gown is fast becoming the new normal in Saudi Arabia.

Pictures of female athletes running in the garb in the Red Sea city of Jeddah went viral last month, setting off a new debate on sartorial freedoms.

Opposition has been largely muted following recent comments from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that the abaya is not mandatory in Islam.

Until a formal edict comes however, designers such as Eman Joharjy are cashing in on the growing popularity of sports abayas.

"There is a big demand," Joharjy told AFP at her fashion studio in Jeddah. "Having them in different colours is empowering."

Akin to a zippered jumpsuit, sports abayas envelop a woman's body but offer greater mobility for sporting activities, in contrast to the classic baggy version where tripping on the hem of the flowing garment is common.

The 43-year-old's designs come in colours like pistachio green, beige and white, and she uses natural fabrics, including French poplin, that do not cling to a sweating body.

A post shared by Eman Joharjy (@emanjoharjy) on

One of the early pioneers of the trend, Joharjy said she was branded a social outlier and jeered by some as "batman" when she began designing — and donning — sports abayas publicly in 2007.

"There was a little bit of rebellion, but I designed it for myself, because it's practical," she said. "You zip up and are ready to go."

Soccer-themed abayas

Joharjy has defied a popular maxim in Saudi Arabia: "If it's not black, it's not an abaya."

Abayas have evolved over the years, with new patterns, fabrics and embellishments, and they are sometimes worn in the kingdom with baseball-style caps over headscarves.

The latest fad is an eye-catching ensemble of "soccer-themed abayas" — in the colours of local teams, a new way for female sporting fans to cheer for their favourite players.

Such fashion trends are gaining momentum amid the kingdom's liberalisation, including a historic royal decree allowing women to drive from June and enter sports stadiums for the first time.

The government is also seeking to jump-start women's sports and is moving toward compulsory physical education classes for girls, after a ban was lifted in 2014.

Saudi officials recently announced that women would be able to participate next year in the Riyadh international marathon, previously a male-only event.

A post shared by Eman Joharjy (@emanjoharjy) on

"The laws are very clear and stipulated in the laws of Sharia: that women wear decent, respectful clothing, like men," Prince Mohammed told CBS Television last month.

"This, however, does not particularly specify a black abaya. (It) is entirely left for women to decide what type of decent and respectful attire to wear."

Modest look

Muslim cleric Sheikh Ahmed bin Qassim al-Ghamdi added a new wrinkle to the debate when he dismissed the long-held view that black was the only colour for abayas permissible in Islam.

"The cloak is meant for maintaining a modest look and it does not have to be black," the former chief of the religious police in the holy city of Mecca, told Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya television last month.

But the risk of a social backlash is real in a society steeped in conservatism.

"They look like cleaners!" a tweet said, in response to viral images of athletes dressed in sports abayas.

"Their purpose is not sports. We have all been running in full body veil," tweeted another.

A post shared by Eman Joharjy (@emanjoharjy) on

Back at Joharjy's studio, a longtime client Marwa al-Hadi walked in wearing one of her designs with magenta sneakers.

"Abaya is like the Indian sari, it is part of our identity," Joharjy told her, as they weighed in on the future evolution of the garment.