By Dina Al-Shibeeb
THE land-locked Saudi capital Riyadh has long been culturally conservative in comparison to other areas in the Kingdom requiring its women to cover their faces with what it is known as niqab. But women there no longer feel fully obliged to move around its streets covering their faces with a veil known as the niqab, now considered by many as non-mandatory requirement in Islam anyways.
Instead, more and more women are opting to wear the Islamic veil that covers the hair known as hijab, sometimes even with strands of their hair showing, combined with colorful abayas or cloaks instead of the traditional black color.
“I know families [in Riyadh], the eldest sibling could not wear hijab alone — she had to wear niqab, but the youngest sister can now walk even without a scarf on her hair in some places,” Rawan Al-Wabel, a mother of three and a healthcare worker, told Al Arabiya English.Al-Wabel says women in Riyadh now can walk even without a scarf to cover their hair in some places.
Wabel, who is also a columnist, has long enjoyed the cultural freedom of a being a modest Muslim woman, wearing her hijab and not niqab, as she originally hails from Dammam, the capital of the Eastern Province.
“I have been living in Riyadh for the last four years, but I am the daughter of Dammam,” she said. “In Dammam, it was much easier to be a hijabi,” attributing her home city’s much liberal climate due to its “diversity” where “people come from different areas.”
With the intermingling spurring more of a freer space in Dammam, the port city of Jeddah, a gateway for pilgrimages to the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah, “is the most liberal,” Wabel said, where “one could see Saudi ladies without scarfs over their heads.”
Asked if women in Riyadh are becoming bolder in their dressing like their eastern and western counterparts in the Kingdom, Najla Al-Sulaiman, 30, told Al Arabiya English, “Of course.”
People in the capital are becoming “bolder, and more accepting,” said Sulaiman, who works as a compliance manger in an international bank in Riyadh.
Sulaiman, who has did a Master’s in the United States from 2011 till 2015, said “the difference through the three years was extremely striking” when she returned to Riyadh. “You see more colorful abayas, more women who are not covering their faces.”
Sulaiman, who does not wear hijab when traveling outside Saudi Arabia like many other compatriot women, said: “While the overwhelming majority are still covering the hair, I have seen girls without head scarfs.”
“Before, when we used to see girls wearing really bright colors and not wearing veil to cover their hair, we used to feel surprised,” she added. “But now we see this and not at all feel surprised.”
Nouf Al-Wabel, 33, who works in the human resources sector in Riyadh, said the “change itself is in wearing more colors and not just black.”
“While there are women, who wear the traditional abaya with hair showing,” they are “still not the majority in Riyadh,” she said.
“We see it in hospitals, medical centers, and banks,” she added. “The change is happening in media, and media is changing many people.”
This “noticeable change,” however, cannot be “generalized all over Riaydh,” said Sulaiman, who nevertheless dons her trendy abaya with colors ranging from baby blue to beige and brown, and head scarf not to be an “oddball.”
“There are parts of Riyadh more modern than others,” said Sulaiman. “When I go to south of Riyadh or other areas in the capital, status quo is still there.”
The compliance manager is from northern Riyadh, considered “more modern.”
But with all the changes, Sulaiman still feels “surprised” if she sees a woman not wearing abaya.
Like her, the human resources employee Wabel also concurred that it is “strange” to see a woman not clad in abaya.
Different cultures coming together, whether it is Saudi Arabians coming from different parts of the Kingdom or expats, social media, globalization or women going to work and earning their own income, are all factors these women consider behind the change.
A law passed by the Saudi cabinet in April, which restricts the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, often referred as “the Haia” to pursue and arrest violators, has also helped.
“The law passed has helped but it was not an obstacle earlier,” the columnist said. “Before, women did not prefer to appear when they [the Haia] were present.”
Sulaiman said “people were leaning toward being bolder, more courageous which led to the formulation of the law,” dubbing it as a “request.”
Nouf Al-Wabel also said college girls now enjoy far more freedom than her time when she graduated in 2007, as now they could leave their campus with their faces uncovered, although there are colleges that mandate young women to cover their faces.
“This is a far cry from my time,” she said, remembering her high school days when it used to be drilled into them how niqab was compulsory, that it became almost “holy.”
“But we started reading and learning as we grow older, and we started comparing with other cultures,” she said. “I have realized that moderation is the way to go, and it will always succeed.”
For her, a Saudi woman is far more “protected with good morals than a piece of cloth on her face,” stressing that modesty begins from within.