The move comes amid reform attempts — including greater freedoms for women — being led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
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“More than 90 per cent of pious Muslim women in the Muslim world do not wear abayas,” Sheikh Mutlaq said during his television programme on Friday. “So we should not force people to wear abayas.”
While not necessarily signalling a change in the law, the statement is the first of its kind from a senior religious figure. Only the government-appointed clerics associated with the Council of Senior Scholars are allowed to issue fatwas, or Islamic legal opinions. Their interpretations of Islamic law form the basis of Saudi Arabia’s legal system.
Saudi women have started wearing more colourful abayas in recent years, the light blues and pinks in stark contrast with the traditional black. Open abayas over long skirts or jeans are also becoming more common in some parts of the country.
The trend marks a major change in the last couple of years. In 2016, a Saudi woman was detained for removing her abaya on a main street in the capital of Riyadh. Local media reported that she was detained after a complaint was filed with the religious police.
The kingdom has seen an expansion in women’s rights recently, including a lifting of the ban on women driving. Women are now also allowed to attend mixed public sporting events.
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