A prominent Saudi cleric has spoken out against wearing abayas, the long black robes which all Saudi women are required to wear by law, according to The BBC.
Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq — a member of the Council of Senior Scholars, highest religious body in Saudi Arabia — said modest dress does not necessarily mean women must wear an abaya. The council advises the king on religious matters. The government also relies on the approval of religious scholars to justify its legitimacy, which is based on Saudi Arabia’s state religion of Wahhabism.
“More than 90 percent of pious Muslim women in the Muslim world do not wear abayas,” al-Mutlaq said, “so we should not force people to wear abayas.”
Currently women are punished for appearing in public without the mandated abaya.
Saudi Arabia has recently been making shifts towards greater freedom and rights for women. Women currently women exist as “legal minors” in the kingdom, unable to travel, work, attend university or participate in a host of other activities without the consent of their male guardian.
As part of this shift, in September 2017, the Council of Senior Scholars endorsed the king’s decision to allow women to drive.
However, as oil revenues decrease, decisions like this are suspected by many experts to be part of an economic drive rather than motivated by a genuine concern for women’s rights.
Changes are not coming fast enough for many campaigners. Human Rights Watch is currently staging a campaign against male guardianship using the hashtag #EndMaleGuardianship.