Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman ushered in an era of social and economic changes in the conservative kingdom. He famously curbed the powers of the country's "religious police" who until recently were able to arrest women for not covering up. His intent to push forward with social liberalisation was further reinforced through his view that Islam did not demand women to wear the black Abaya or a black head cover, a view that went against long held social and cultural practices in the country.
These changes have generally been welcomed. Though many acknowledge this as a shift in the right direction, some have pointed out that political reforms within the kingdom are still a long way from being remotely satisfactory and that social reform is no substitute for much needed political reform.
Some have also expressed unease over the pace of social change in Saudi Arabia, believing that the country's conservative population is not ready to embrace the freedoms that are normally taken for granted in the West. "Not forcing "Abaya" upon Saudi women is definitely a positive step in the right direction, however a gradual change in dress styles may help to win sustained support for the move & may prevent a backlash," one editor and TV anchor tweeted in response to a Saudi women shunning the obligatory outer garment in a push for more social liberties.
Through his decision to rein in the "religious police" the crown prince granted new freedoms. Their boundaries however still remain untested. A number of women like 33-year-old Mashael Al-Jaloud, are beginning to change this by defying social norms, in what seems to be an attempt to challenge Bin Salman's claim to social liberalisation.
Images of Al-Jaloud outside malls without the abaya went viral yesterday. Videos also appeared showing her walking beside other Saudi women wearing traditional clothes. The women appear aghast at what they are seeing. While walking around the mall Al-Jaloud was asked if she was a celebrity or model but told the shocked veiled women she was just a normal Saudi woman without an abaya.
In a video where she can be seen speaking about what seems to be a social experiment to test the waters, she said that "there are no clear laws. No clear protection" in Saudi Arabia for women. She claimed that she "maybe at risk because I am not walking with an abaya." There was however no evidence in the video to suggest that she was at any physical risk.
Despite her protestations, Al-Jaloud is reported saying that although she is remaining defiant, she is still forced to wear an abaya and headscarf to work or risk losing her job.