Supporters say the trend is just fashion; foes urge sticking to black.
Coloured abayas gain popularity and spark debate
RIYADH // Getting ready to go out and meet friends at the mall used to be a quick process for Rima al Mokhtar. With only traditional black abayas to choose from, she was seldom weighed down by indecision. That all changed recently when she bought her first coloured abaya, becoming part of a growing group of women in Saudi Arabia who are embracing a new trend and giving women in the country a choice in what to wear when heading out.
In Saudi Arabian tradition, women wear black abayas with black headscarves, but in the past few years there has been a shift and today, the streets feature a dash of colour. However, the coloured abayas have provoked debate in Saudi, with critics saying they attract too much attention and are inappropriate for a conservative Muslim society. Some women, however, consider them to be a fashion statement and others see them as a way of life. Although not widespread, more women seem to be grasping the notion of individuality and are seeking to exchange black for a rainbow of colours.
The trend from black to colour started discreetly. Women wore coloured abayas covered with dark, black cloth. Soon, that heavy, black cloth was replaced with a sheer one. Now coloured abayas are worn in the open. Ms Mokhtar, 22, who lives in Jeddah, is one Saudi woman who supports the new trend. She sees this move from dreary black to fanciful colour as a fashion statement. "As Saudi girls we want to show our style. Mix it up - combine both modern and tradition a little," she said.
Despite her daring attitude, Ms Mokhtar is aware there is a limit to how far she can go. "Of course I wouldn't wear my coloured abaya in certain malls for fear of harassment and unwanted looks. But I wear them when going out at major malls, dinners and social gatherings." For some it is less about the fashion and more about a personal choice. "It's a way of life for me. I dislike black and would rather wear colour. It is as simple as it sounds. I'm not seeking to be a fashion icon," said Nairoz Bakur, 22, a university student.
One of those helping to lead the trend is Shoa'a al Ghalib, an abaya designer in Jeddah. "I abhor black. Frankly, it clenches my soul," said Ms Ghalib, who has been designing coloured abayas for more than a year. "Does it even seem appropriate in this heat that we wear such a colour?" The change in attitude is bringing good business for abaya designers. An abaya can cost from 300 riyals (Dh294) to 5,000 riyals and coloured abayas tend to cost more than the traditional black ones.
The market varies from city to city in the kingdom, with Jeddah being the most open to the new trend. Although some women support these colourful abayas, others see them as unnecessary. "These abayas are considered attractive and they attract much unneeded attention. To keep a clear conscience I'd steer clear from these colours and hold on to my black one for as long as possible," said Hanadi Marhgalani, who lives in Riyadh.
Those opposing the new trend include many men, who said they prefer the standard black abaya. "I would never even consider that one of my female relatives wears this coloured abaya. The abaya is supposed to cover women not turn heads," said Mohammed Hanky, who lives in Riyadh. However, Ms Ghalib does not understand why women are forced to wear black. "If their reasoning for preventing coloured abayas is specified especially for sexual harassment, then how is it that even dressed in black from head to toe, girls are still bothered? The problem isn't with what we women wear, it's with the men's inappropriate gazing."
Ahmad al Jardan, the spokesman for the Commission for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, said the new abayas were not acceptable in Saudi society. "We don't see this as a fad. If there are any situations with girls wearing these abayas then they are exceptional. And anything that proclaims the abaya from its religious state that has been specified by our religious scholars we no doubt reject completely.
"I don't expect that [coloured abayas will become popular] as Saudi society is a strict Muslim country that refuses any clothing that is indecent and inappropriate for any person." However, some said the topic has provoked debate about a woman's role in Saudi Arabia. "Coloured abayas show girls in an independent light. They are still abiding by Islam's rules and with their own style," Sami al Tokhais said.
"Everything new is labelled as evil. You have to support your argument, not label anything new as wrong. Here is the problem - it is all about society." Samira al Suliamany, a mother of four from Jeddah, said: "It all comes down to why the person is wearing it in the first place. "Abayas are made to protect women from men's constant gazing. So if a girl wears a coloured abaya to allure men, then doesn't that contradict the purpose of the abaya?"
* The National