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For Saudi women, bright is the new black

For years, the only women’s cloaks sold openly in Saudi stores were plain and all black. Now, streaks of vibrant color, bands of glittering crystal — even sheaths of sexy leopard-skin prints — are showing up on the racks and causing a backlash.
/ Source: The Associated Press

For years, the only thing sold openly in Saudi stores selling women's cloaks were of the all-black, drab covering variety. Now, streaks of vibrant color, bands of glittering crystal — even sheaths of sexy leopard skin prints — are showing up on the racks.

And that's not all. Women are snapping them up and even sometimes wearing them in public.

For stores to openly stock the new generation of cloaks, or abayas, and for some women to wear them in public are not just fashion statements. They are risky acts of defiance in a nation where the powerful religious police have for years raided stores to confiscate "illegal" abayas as part of their mandate as guardians of the kingdom's rigid interpretation of Islamic teachings.

These days, the "legal" abayas that conform to the strict standards of the religious police have been relegated to the back of many stores in major Saudi cities. In their place are the new ones.

While salesmen and designers say women are snapping up the new abaya models and feel pressured to produce more styles to meet demand, some Saudis are unhappy that what is supposed to hide women's curves and detract male attention is becoming a fashion statement sure to turn a man's head.

"You look around you and you find abayas that are embroidered, fitted or with wide sleeves. Most abayas now need abayas to cover them," says a religious pamphlet available at malls in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

"When some girls go out they (look) like prostitutes who invite people to carry out lewd acts. How else can you explain how some women adorn themselves with their abayas ... ?" it says.

Girls in Saudi Arabia are required to wear abayas when they hit puberty. And all women expatriates have to wear them in public. The religious police say the abayas should be loose, worn on the head and left to fall down to the ground without outlining the body. They should not be transparent or ornamented, they say.

A new style or old-fashioned?
Things were not always that strict.

Sarah Kennedy, an American who has lived in Saudi Arabia for almost 30 years, said that in 1979 when she first arrived in the kingdom foreign women were not obliged to wear abayas. But as the kingdom became more conservative in the 1980s, foreign women began wearing abayas too, but ones that looked like capes and fell just to mid thigh.

"But then, suddenly ... you couldn't find the ones you normally wanted," said Kennedy. "So you bought them anyway."

No one really knows why or how it became OK to sell the new stylish abayas. Major stores in big cities carry them openly and there have not been reports in the local media of religious police confiscating them.

But like everything else in the kingdom, the change was subtle and incremental.

Glitter started adorning wrists or was sprinkled on the edges of the veil that must be worn on the head. Then color began creeping on the black fabric and the loose shapeless cloaks became more fitted. The cumbersome panels that hooked to the shoulders to ensure that nothing peeked from underneath the abaya as a woman walked slowly disappeared.

Today, the new abayas are without the panels and close straight down like a long coat.

The new styles cropped up first in the more open western seaside city of Jiddah and in the Eastern Province.

"We in Jiddah are fashion conscious," said abaya designer Ghada al-Sairafi. "I try to come up with a new model every week because of the demand."

Hanan al-Madani, another Jiddah designer, said abayas are "no longer just abayas."

"Today, they reflect a woman's taste and personality," said al-Madani, whose custom-made abayas sell between $402 and $2,145.

Jiddah boasts the most daring abayas. In one store, there were cloaks with red lace hanging down from the black sleeves, some with crystal sprinkled around the collar and waist and a few double-layered ones with bold reds, greens and yellows underneath a sheer black chiffon top.

The best-seller among these was one with a leopard skin pattern underneath the top cover.

But not everyone in fashionable Jiddah likes the new abayas. Tahani al-Jihani, 42, is one.

She bustled into one Jiddah store to choose abayas for her daughter and her sister and later announced: "I don't like the new styles but my sister and my daughter love them.

"I feel they attract too much attention," said al-Jihani as she watched her daughter try on one with balloon arms.

Despite Jiddah's relatively liberal atmosphere, many Saudi women avoid wearing the daring abayas in public places such as malls and restaurants.

Hala Ahmed, a 21-year-old interior design student, said she wears the new styles to weddings and to college, which are segregated.

"They're more like dresses, so I wear them to places where no men will see me in them."