(Bloomberg) -- Munira Al Mutairi sometimes wonders what it would be like to leave her house without covering herself in an abaya, the long cloak that Saudi women wear in public.
“It would be a kind of liberation,” she said at a private residential compound in Riyadh where a group of women are smoking hookah, another taboo. “I don’t want anyone to put conditions on me -- that you’re a woman, you have to be like this, don’t show your face.”
But this is Saudi Arabia, a conservative Islamic society where many view the covering as a religious and cultural imperative, and Al Mutairi admits she’s not ready to follow the handful of women who have abandoned their abayas.
“My problem is the atmosphere that’s around me, I’m scared of it,” said the 42-year-old mother of three. “Maybe my husband would divorce me.”
She has every reason to worry. The very idea that some women might cast off their abayas is causing uproar in Saudi Arabia as rapid social change puts old fault lines between the kingdom’s so-called liberals and conservatives under unprecedented stress.
After decades enforcing the views of clerics who opposed music and gender mixing, the government made an about-face under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, relaxing social restrictions and inviting pop stars like Mariah Carey to perform, all while stifling dissent.
The kingdom’s religious police have lost most of their power, allowing women to test the limits of the dress code that officers once roamed the streets enforcing. In wealthier urban areas, it’s increasingly common for women to uncover their hair, and many wear colored abayas instead of the standard black.
There’s even talk that the government will soon make the abaya optional as it attempts for the first time to attract foreign tourists. An event on Friday to launch visas could announce new guidelines for proper attire in public for male and female visitors.
But the backlash that women experience when they push the boundaries dictated by their community is often fierce.
On a recent evening, Mashael Bin Jaloud ignored the sideways glances of other customers as she entered a trendy cafe in the Saudi capital dressed in wide-legged pants and an over-sized shirt. It’s six months since she stopped wearing an abaya, and stares are the least of what she’s faced.
Online, strangers called for her to be jailed. She’s lost friends, and after appearing in a foreign media report without her abaya, she lost her job in human resources. Her chances of marrying are zero, Bin Jaloud, 34, jokes.
“A lot of people attacked me, a lot of people cast doubt on my religion and my nationality,” she said in Riyadh. Still, she says, “it’s a matter of choice.”
In a U.S. television interview last year, Prince Mohammed said it was entirely “for women to decide what type of decent and respectful attire” they want to wear.
Yet only a small number of Saudi women have fully abandoned their abayas, and because edicts requiring “modest dress” are interpreted in a variety of ways, they risk running foul of the law.
‘God is Watching’
In 2016, Saudi activist Malak Al-Shehri was arrested after posting online a photograph of herself on Riyadh’s main boulevard without an abaya. In much of the country, it’s unusual to see a woman without a face-covering niqab, let alone minus a cloak.
“It’s our religion, and it’s something we’re accustomed to,” said Layla Al Arfaj, a 42-year-old Riyadh resident who covers herself in black from head to toe. “It’s in our blood.”
Even when Al Arfaj traveled abroad and people urged her to shed her niqab -- telling her no one was watching -- she didn’t. “God is watching,” she said.
In the relatively liberal coastal enclaves of Jeddah and Khobar, more women have ditched the abaya. Raja’a Makki, a 29-year-old neurosurgery resident in Khobar, started going out without one more than four years ago.
“I’ve been witnessing a lot of people walking around totally fine with jeans and t-shirts,” said Makki, who’s half Moroccan.
In conservative corners of the kingdom, more Saudis are horrified by the idea. Reports about women shedding their abayas set off a firestorm on social media -- one of the few places where conservatives can express outrage after a political crackdown shrank the space for permissible criticism. Women also face opposition within their families.
Makki’s father hasn’t talked to her since she stopped covering her hair. Dima, a 32-year-old software engineer who stopped wearing an abaya two years ago, said she was rejected for a job because she wasn’t a “cultural fit,” and was once chased by another woman trying to lecture her. She asked Bloomberg to withhold her last name so she could speak freely.
Back at the compound, as sweet-smelling smoke wafted through the air and the foreign staff were the only men in sight, Al Mutairi said that if more women started going out without abayas, she’d feel brave enough to try.
She’s encouraged by some of the changes that have already swept through the kingdom.
As a period of silence for Islam’s sunset prayer ended and the Riyadh cafe began blaring Arabic pop music, Bin Jaloud marveled at the scene.
“Two years ago, these songs were forbidden,” she said. “We lived in an era that wasn’t humane at all. It’s over, and now the time’s come for us to live.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Vivian Nereim in Riyadh at firstname.lastname@example.org
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