Under the abaya, Saudi women grasp reform toehold

Fri Jun 22, 2012 10:48am EDT
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By Arlene Getz

(Reuters) - Deema al-Mashabi is eager to show off the gold brocade decorating the folds of her abaya. She designed her own robe — the traditionally all-black, enveloping gown that observant Muslim women wear in public.

For al-Mashabi, appearing in public in a customized style is not just a fashion statement, but a symbol of the changes taking place in her native Saudi Arabia.

"A lot of women are designing their own abayas now," she said of her reversible garment.

Indeed, the glitzed-up abayas being seen all over Saudi Arabia, stand as a metaphor for the gains women are making in this oil-rich kingdom. Women are not throwing off their cloaks, but they are making modest inroads in loosening the restrictions that govern this male-ordered, conservative country, which is a key U.S. ally in the Middle East.

That is the impression gained by a group of senior American editors — including this reporter - who visited Riyadh last month as fellows of the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins University. Although men remain dominant and women's rights are severely limited by Western standards, there are signs of incremental change in education and politics, as well as fashion.

Like the decorations on the abayas, the movement is often nuanced and visible only on the fringes.

Like Henry Ford and his Model T, which he told customers they could have in any color so long as it was black, abayas still come almost exclusively in only one color. But in Riyadh's upscale Faisaliah mall, many now boast glittery embroidered caricatures and carry a price tag in riyal equivalent to $500. In Jeddah's old town market, rows of abayas selling for about $20 showcase beadwork of flowers and sunbursts. Women are finally being allowed to sell lingerie to other women, a significant change from the days when only men could handle the sale of bras. Soon, women will be allowed to sell make-up, too.

Livelier clothes hardly make for a Saudi Spring, but the 18 months of protests and uprisings that have shaken the region have left their mark on this conservative kingdom. The ruling monarch, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, swiftly responded to the Arab Spring turmoil with a package of incremental reforms that analysts say are aimed at maintaining the status quo without provoking a backlash from the powerful religious clergy.   Continued...

Men and women wait in separate lines to order at McDonald's in Riyadh's Faisaliah mall May 16, 2012. REUTERS/Arlene Getz