>As the abaya experiences a coming of age, more women are exploring ownership of identity.
Photography: Vivienne Balla
There’s more to abayas than meets the eye – the very eyes men have been instructed to avert from the silky black surfaces of these loose garments to avoid temptation. But today, Saudi women are more visible than ever, opting for a presence that reveals what lies beneath – their true colors. To avoid them is as futile an exercise as is covering the sun with the palm of one’s hand. In the sprawling concrete jungles of Riyadh and Jeddah, the abaya is experiencing a rebirth, while in smaller pockets of the Kingdom, some women are lamenting the loss of tradition.
Donna AlSudairy, a Jeddah-based writer, still finds it difficult to reconcile the big shifts in women’s public sartorial choices. “Just three years ago, I would stick to black and navy. I wasn’t comfortable standing out,” she notes. It was only when she went shopping with an Australian friend that AlSudairy noticed the new social contract, to which she found herself repeatedly exclaiming, “No way can I do that!” Egged on by her friend, she eventually settled for a blue overlay. Today, AlSudairy wears midcalf abayas, and has one for each occasion: a business abaya, a night-out abaya, and a beach one, too.
The abaya as a statement piece is perhaps best reflected in the gradual sweeping of the kimono/trenchcoat-turned- abaya trend; a guiding principle for many designers who want to stay relevant. Beachbaya, a brand out of Jeddah, offers loose-fitting floral cover-ups in bright hues. Its Instagram account, easily mistaken for portraying a balmy Bali beachscape, features sun-kissed Saudi models in neon chandelier earrings with boyfriend jeans peeking underneath the draping cloaks. Taking cues from the landscape is not a phenomenon exclusive to the picturesque views of the West coast. In the Saudi capital, an ambitious, big-city nightlife feel influences brands. Torba Studio takes a more experimental, futurist approach. Launched by two college friends, Nazek AlKhulaifi and Sarah AlAmeel, it’s inspired by the billowing darkness of the night and a yearning for another planet. With galactic imageries, the studio’s disruptive streetwear abayas are capsules to the moon, embellished with glow-in- the-dark material and cosmic prints. “We take inspiration from the mystery and philosophy of the unknown. Modest wear is always preppy and clean-cut, so we wanted something edgy,” says AlKhulaifi, who insists that niqab visuals in their branding don’t parody or subjugate women. Instead, they communicate a core value. When nighttime befalls the Riyadh sky, everyone blends in and becomes anonymous.
Rooted more in the present is Farah Aziz, a former diplomat who lives alone in the city. Like a lot of Saudi women, she is going through her journey of weaning off the abaya after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman stated in 2018 that they were not mandatory under Saudi or Islamic law. “I bought a trenchcoat but shied away from stepping out in public,” says Aziz, who limits her creative experimentation to more progressive spaces like the Diplomatic Quarter in Riyadh. “When the breeze brushed my face this one October morning, it felt like I was in New York. I felt very alive.”
Similarly, Raneen Bukhari, an art consultant based in Los Angeles, has walked a winding road of trial and error since 2011. Pushing the limits of what is permissible, she started with kaftans and maxi dresses that kept getting shorter and shorter. Eventually, she escalated to baggy shirts and pants, until she was once barred from entering an Eastern Province mall. “Even though I was ready to get in trouble, no one ultimately cared enough,” explains Bukhari, who seems to have always been in the right place at the right time – other women weren’t as lucky to slip under the radar.
One such example is Fatimah, whose professional aspirations drove her to exchange Al-Qassim for the capital, where she currently lives alone, much to her conservative family’s dismay. “My parents don’t go out much but they see the changes via social media and they aren’t too comfortable,” she shares. “But they know better than to say much in front of me because I clap back.” While adamant about leading a life that follows her own values, Fatimah is weary of straying too far from a preconceived line. “I prefer to blend in like a chameleon, so as to please my family while not compromising my beliefs.” Equally concerned with appearance and disappearance is Jude, a liberal arts graduate who recalls a time when colorful abayas were the great white whale of daring Saudi women. “Just five years ago, it was a struggle to find inspiring choices. Now, it seems like my norm is everyone else’s,” she rejoices.
Whether it’s a sea of blackness or a prism of color, one thing is certain: Saudi women are engaged in a cultural reset of sorts, redefining the abaya by stripping it of the male gaze and casting it triumphantly under the female one. The abaya is feminine in noun and social construct – she’s come a long way and she’s blazing new trails.
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Originally published in the December 2020 Issue of Vogue Arabia