Saudi Arabia hosted its first fashion week, ever. That’s progress; at least on one level. Designers showcased fashions for discerning, well-heeled Saudi women.
And yet for all the movement forward, there were two huge roadblocks to real progress. The first limitation was the women-only audience, as per local gender segregation laws. Additionally, there was a social media ban to ensure that women wouldn’t be publicly exposed without their abayas and head scarves. While the runway may have featured colourful fashion choices, the women in the audience continue to be denied two basic choices available to most people around the world—the rights to choose what they wear and with whom they socialise.
Fashion designers, please don’t normalise misogyny in your effort to chase increased revenues. By offering women-only events and colourful abayas, fashion designers have inadvertently become complicit in enabling misogynistic practices rather than supporting the dismantling of gender apartheid norms and laws in Saudi Arabia and the region. The fashion industry is a global unifier and should use this opportunity to be a change agent —advocating for women, equality, and human rights.
In celebrating the progress, the British Fashion Council and global fashion designers as well as all of us should not turn a blind eye to the legal limitations for women. Even in Saudi Arabia, some political and religious leaders are publicly acknowledging the need to remove limitations on women, including the abaya requirement. The laws now need to formally reflect these new proposed rights. Culture will eventually follow the law.
Let’s recognise that segregation based on gender is the same as segregation based on race; why do we tolerate the first but not the latter? As a serial entrepreneur, I support creative entrepreneurship, but not at the expense of other’s freedoms. We can choose to dress conservatively, but let’s ensure it’s a choice —which is only genuine if you can choose either side of an option. Fashion designers can be even more forward-thinking by labelling clothing with inclusive, neutral words such as coat or kaftan, indicating garments that have no religious connotations and can be worn by anyone, female or male.
In Saudi Arabia, limitations and rules on clothing and gender segregation reflect the conservative Bedouin traditions more than religion. The abaya, niqab, and hijab are cultural remnants of a religious patriarchy that must be overcome by our joint efforts. Globally, there are millions of devout Muslim women wearing outfits of their choosing —and studying, working, and socialising alongside men. Dressing respectfully and conservatively should not require a face and body to be hidden.
In fairness, throughout history, the global religions have dictated women’s lives, including how they covered their heads and bodies. It’s time Islamic women join their Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and other religious sisters in having choices, not only regarding their clothing, but also throughout their personal and professional lives. We need to have the collective courage to avoid normalising misogyny under outdated guises of culture and tradition.
Discussing religiously-influenced clothing is often a hot-button issue where people are quick to perceive criticism of religions. Rather the criticism is really about how religions of the world still marginalise women by dictating their behaviour. We can respect our religions without accepting inferior status just because we happen to have been born female.
I often hear cultural justifications that wearing an abaya is similar to wearing a sari in India or a kimono in Japan. No, it’s not. Neither the sari nor the kimono is religiously mandated or legally enforced—nor is the rationale for either garment based on outdated stereotypes that women are weaker and need protection from men. Women in these countries have the option to wear clothing of their choosing, and there are no legal or social repercussions for not wearing a traditional outfit.
So why should we care? In our hyper-connected world, how one society views and treats its women impacts us all. While focusing on clothing choices may seem superficial, these limitations reflect a systemic misogynistic culture that suffocates women. Our views of each other are formed very early in life through the convergence of influences from our families, communities, education, and media. When one community advocates unequal practices based on gender, race, or religion anywhere in the world, it’s visible through our media and interactions—and gradually we all come to internalise and normalise these biases. The only way to truly achieve equality is to advocate for all women across all societies, not just in our immediate surroundings.
Women of all faiths around the world have the right to expect equality. Let’s not normalise any form of gender restrictions or discrimination in the pursuit of revenues or under the guise of faith or culture, whether in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere.