Saudi women need not wear abaya robes, senior cleric says
Saudi women should not have to wear the loose-fitting abaya robe to shroud their bodies in public, a senior cleric said, in the latest sign of a far-reaching liberalisation drive.
"More than 90 percent of pious Muslim women in the Muslim world do not wear abayas," said Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars - the kingdom's highest religious body.
"So we should not force people to wear abayas," he said on a television programme broadcast on Friday.
Saudi Arabia, which has some of the world's tightest restrictions on women, requires them to wear the garment by law.
The government has not said whether it will change the law, but this is the first such comment from a senior religious figure.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has recently introduced a series of reforms in favour of women as the kingdom prepares for a post-oil era.
Saudi Arabia last month allowed women to enter a football stadium for the first time to watch a game.
The move came four months after the kingdom announced an end to a long-standing ban on women driving - a major change to the country's ultra-conservative social order.
But women still face a number of restrictions.
Under Saudi Arabia's existing guardianship system, a male family member - normally the father, husband or brother - must grant permission for a woman's study, travel and a host of other activities.
Sheikh Mutlaq's comment sparked a host of reactions on social media, including from other clerics who backed his statement.
Flurry of reaction
One Saudi Twitter user commented: "Chastity and morality should not be tied to a piece of cloth."
The BBC reported other Twitter users expressing varying opinions, including:
"The abaya is a matter of tradition in one of our regions and has become applicable to all. It is not an issue of religion," wrote Twitter user Mashari Ghamdi.
"Even if one hundred fatwas have been issued, I swear to God I will never leave my abaya. Over my dead body. Girls, do not listen to the fatwas…" wrote twitter user @Kooshe90.
In 2016, a Saudi woman was detained for removing her abaya on a main street in the capital of Riyadh, Reuters news agency reported.
Still, in recent years Saudi women have begun wearing more colourful abayas that contrast with the traditional black, and open abayas worn over long skirts or jeans are also becoming more common in some parts of the country, Reuters said.