Time: June 28, 2018
JEDDAH: When Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving ended on Sunday, fashion designer Eman Joharjy and her friends drove to Jeddah’s seafront where they exchanged their car for bicycles.
The colorful, embroidered jumpsuit abayas they donned stood out among the sea of women wearing similar loose-fitting full-length robes but in the traditional black. Yet no one stopped them.
Women in Saudi Arabia are rapidly gaining more freedoms under a reform agenda spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who wants to transform the Kingdom’s economy.
The government recently allowed women to join the security forces and no longer requires them to have a male relative’s consent to open a business. And while now they can drive, they still need permission to get married and travel abroad.
Mohammed bijn Salman laid the ground two years ago for many social changes, including the return of cinemas and public concerts, by curbing the powers of the religious police.
These days at sunset, as the Arabian heat eases, women do sports along the promenade.
“Women feel encouraged by the government support. They are telling them, ‘You can go run and play sports’,” said Joharjy. “But let’s change from a sedentary society to a more active one.”
In 2007, frustrated by a lack of abayas made for running or cycling, Joharjy designed one for herself. She began making them for friends and selling what she dubbed the “sporty abaya.”
Colorful racks display designs for different activities like the driving abaya, which features a hoodie, tight elbows to prevent the sleeves from catching on the steering wheel, and shorter lengths to make switching pedals easier.
Most importantly for Joharjy, there is no trace of black.
“They reflect freedom and the willingness to embrace life and make it easy for the modern woman,” she said. “Besides, women love color.”
She is optimistic that Saudi Arabia’s social rules will ease further. But she still believes that many women will continue to wear the abaya in one form or another.
For her, the robe is like the Indian sari, a symbol of cultural heritage rather than religion.