On his radio program, high-profile Sheikh Abdullah Al-Mutlaq said that women were not obliged to wear the abaya -- the loose-fitting, full-length robe that adult females typically put on in Saudi Arabia. His brief statement has made the rounds for days as he faced a backlash that he most probably had not foreseen.
A few hours after releasing what was widely deemed a fatwa opposing one of the ultra-conservative kingdom's longstanding rules, Al-Mutlaq hit the headlines across the globe and his statement went viral on social media, sparking debates over what is allowed and forbidden for women to wear.
Hours after his show, he sought to explain that his statement was not a far cry from what Saudi Arabia has known and enforced for decades, yet his follow-up effort hardly put an end to the controversy instigated by what he had said.
His statement on the abaya was perceived to be earth-shattering primarily because of Al-Mutlaq's stature; he is one of the government-appointed clerics in the Council of Senior Scholars, the body that is solely entitled to issue fatwas in Saudi Arabia. Contrary to how he sounded, the hard-line council usually releases strict interpretations of the Islamic Sharia.
Modest Outfit Is Enough
Al-Mutlaq explicitly said the abaya was not a mandatory outfit for women, stressing they were only required to dress modestly as per Islamic teachings. "More than 90 percent of pious Muslim women in the Islamic world do not know the abaya," he said during his weekly show. "Women who are devout Muslims...don't have abayas."
After his statement created a fuss, Al-Mutlaq explained in a written statement that what he said was directed to all Muslim women, not just the Saudi. "Every outfit that is covering [the body fully] and fulfills the Islamic conditions is an acceptable veil, as long as... it is loose-fitting," the statement reads. Muslim women, he added, "should not be compelled to wear an outfit that is not recognizable" in their respective communities.
Al-Mutlaq strenuously denied that his statement was a call for women to take off the veil as critics have persistently claimed.
This ongoing debate raises a lingering question: what are the origins of the abaya?
An Old Disagreement
Saudi women wear the abaya throughout the year. The traditional outfit dominantly comes in black, even though it is available in different other colors.
The disagreement over the abaya is not nascent. Those who are well-informed about the Saudi history -- especially of villages and rural areas -- are aware that the outfit is a new tradition, barely 50 years old.
The women of the south, in agricultural villages, used to put on what is called Al-Galal, a piece of cloth covering the head and shoulders. In the 1970s the Saudi society started growing stricter, the influence of the so-called Islamic Awakening movement. Since then, there has been a rift over an uncompromising conviction that women must wear black loose-fitting abayas, which is the norm in Saudi Arabia these days.
Photos taken in the early 1940s of Saudi women living in the desert as well as female foreigners employed at Aramco indicate the now-traditional abaya was not mainstream back then. This remained the case until the mid-1970s.
"The abaya is a recent garment whether in Najd, Hijaz, the south or the desert region," said historian and human rights activist Rakia Hamoud Al-Shayeb in an article published in Al-Watan paper on 25 August, 2012. "The current design of the abaya was only introduced in recent years. Women 70 years ago used to wear the male cloak due to poor economic conditions and cultural reasons."
Historians believe the female abaya was imported to Saudi Arabia from Syria, Iraq and even Egypt 80 years ago, when women traditionally wore wraps. Beforehand, Saudi women used to be colorfully dressed, with designs varying from one area to another.
Historians believe the abaya was imported to Saudi Arabia from Syria, Iraq and possibly Egypt 80 years ago, and the Senior Council of Scholars questions its prevalence
"The abaya as we know it today arrived in Saudi from Iraq," says a researcher specialized in Qatif's history as the Council of Senior Scholars relaxes abaya rules
"The abaya with the color and design of nowadays is not part of the development of the way women dress in the Arabian Peninsula," said writer Umaima Al-Khamis in an article published in Riyadh newspaper on 18 October, 2014.
"Most probably it came to us from the Turks during the Ottoman rule, which opted to choose black as the color of the women's veil pursuant to the Haramlek conditions that staunchly opposed women's presence in public spaces. It also suits their cold weather and freezing winds."
Qatif, east of Saudi Arabia, was not different from the desert region, the south or Hijaz. Six decades ago, the Saudi social environment was less conservative and more flamboyant. Women at the time used to wear a rather transparent cloak that would blur the details of the outfit underneath, without covering it entirely.
"The abaya as we know it today arrived [in Saudi Arabia] from Iraq," research Ahmed Al-Tayeb, who is specialized in Al-Qatif's history, told Raseef22.
Twenty years ago, Saudi women did not care much for either the appearance or the color of their abayas; it was a peripheral piece of cloth. What mattered was the outfit underneath. Later on, Arab fashion designers instigated the production of colorful, carefully embroidered abayas, making it a lavish outfit that could bear a $300 price tag.
While Saudi Arabia for over two years has been witnessing major changes, primarily in women's lifestyle and limitations, they started to liberate themselves from the typical dark abayas.
New designs have changed the original purpose of the abaya: from a loose-fitting garment that is meant to cover what is underneath, to a decorated outfit that could be slim-fit. Some abayas cover the head, others are placed on the shoulders, with white and rosy becoming common colors. This is definitely a huge leap, considering that an activist was arrested in Riyadh late 2016 only for taking off her abaya on snapchat.
A Storm of Controversy
As Al-Mutlaq refrained from retracting his statement, he has stirred widespread controversy on social media, especially Twitter where different Arabic hashtags went viral. #Al-Mutlaq_abaya_is_not_compulsory came in over 46,000 tweets within hours. After his following explanation, #clarification_of_Sheikh_Al-Mutlaq was used in other 25,000 tweets. Another trending hashtag was #do_not_turn_habits_into_orders.
There have been extreme opinions at either end of the debate. Abdulaziz Al-Raies, general supervisor of Islam Ancient network, was one of the detractors. "We have expected honest utterance from dr. Abdullah Al-Mutlaq, but unfortunately he repeated what he said and decided that decency is the benchmark. This is an elastic criteria that may include dresses," he said. "He talked neither about hijab, the galabya [ankle-length robes] that is worn on top of outfits, nor the [Islamic] teachings concerning not wearing it. It is sad that a time has come when voices opposing the hijab are louder."
Many people, including human rights activist Haila Al-Moshaweh, believe the Saudi society is still not ready for such disillusionment. "Our problem is that we are a society that cannot differentiate between habits and religious orders," she said. "So criticizing habits have become a taboo that you might be declared an apostate for breaking."
Meanwhile, some have jumped to defend the under-fire Al-Mutlaq, saying his statements were misinterpreted.
Al-Mutlaq's fatwa is the first of its kind; no other member of the Council of Senior Scholars has ever questioned or reversed the fundamentals of Saudi Arabia's radical society.
Many have seen his statement as part of the country's ongoing upheaval, which saw some of the restrictions imposed on women lifted.
Women in Saudi Arabia last year were for the first time in history permitted to drive, and also allowed into stadiums and concerts. Such reforms are compatible with the oil-rich monarchy's progressive 2030 vision.