Photo: Dania Akeel, the first woman in Saudi Arabia to get a motorcycle racing licence. She says she's always preferred comfortable, practical clothing and can now incorporate this comfort into her everyday workwear. Photo supplied by Dania Akeel.

Islamic Lifestyle

Freedom, empowerment, mobility: In 2020, Saudi Arabia fashion forwarded as reforms for women reap rewards

Saudi women today are fashioning forward and wearing clothes that a few years ago would have been frowned upon for violating dress codes.

As social changes and reforms take hold, personal dressing style is also changing to reflect a new sense of long-awaited freedom.

Some women still prefer to wear the plain back version of the abaya but many are replacing this traditional look with modest but creative twists. They've come up with abayas that are coat-style, open-front, jumpsuit, and kimono dresses.

“Theoretically, you don’t need to wear an abaya anymore in public. I still do but the atmosphere is much more relaxed," said Dania Akeel, the first woman in Saudi Arabia to get a motorcycle racing licence from the Saudi Arabian Motorsport Federation.

Akeel's always preferred comfortable, practical clothing and she can now easily incorporate this comfort into her everyday workwear. “So now I wear coloured and open-front abayas, as opposed to the completely closed abayas I used to have. The abaya is an easy way to wear my sports clothes such as leggings underneath," the motor sportswoman told Salaam Gateway. 


Saudi Arabia is currently the third biggest Muslim consumer market for apparel and footwear, having spent $21 billion in 2019, according to the State of the Global Islamic Economy 2020/21 report from DinarStandard.

Until recently, most abayas in the GCC’s most populated nation were straightforward cloaks that were similar in design and only varied in colour and pattern, according to Akeel.

“What I’m seeing now is a shift in abaya designs – they’re looking more like dresses. You can find kaftans, shorter length and shorter sleeve abayas, so they’re less uniform. We see outfits that we don’t know whether to define as abaya, maxi dress or coat – there’s so much variety.”

Akeel featured in the latest edition of 'Under the Abaya’, a collection of images displaying the sartorial styles of women in the kingdom. The book was authored by Saudi entrepreneur Marriam Mossalli, founder of Jeddah-based luxury consultancy firm Niche Arabia. The first edition came out in February 2018 and the second in June 2020.

“Fashion is a great history teller. We’re able to look at our fashion and see how things have changed in people’s lives. With Saudi Arabia, that has been more interesting because of the fact that we have the abaya; you can easily track the transition,” said Mossalli.

She was speaking at a recent webinar on Saudi Arabia’s street style, hosted by Zay Initiative, the Middle East's first fashion history archive.

“Before, we had very decadent abayas. Everything we did was about Eid, a funeral, or a baby shower. Then women started entering the workplace and we started seeing abayas coming in linen, jersey, lighter and more versatile fabric. They’re also shorter so they wouldn’t get caught in the wheels of our desk,” said Mossalli.

“Having this fashion garment reflects the versatility of our lives. Today’s abayas look more like outerwear; you can wear them on a trip to Switzerland.”

Biggest changes and reforms for women in Saudi Arabia
April 2013 Women allowed to ride bicycles in recreational areas
December 2015 Women allowed to vote in municipal elections
February 2017 Saudi authorities start giving licences for women's gyms.
April 2017 Saudi Arabia joins the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, which promotes gender equality and female empowerment.
May 2017 Women can access government and health services without consent from their male guardians.
July 2017 Physical education allowed for girls in public schools
January 2018 Women allowed to watch football matches at stadiums
February 2018 Women allowed to start their own businesses without a guardian's permission
March 2018
  • Saudi military opens applications to women. 
  • Mothers granted right to retain custody of their children after divorce, without going through legal proceedings.
May 2018 Saudi authorities approve a law to criminalize sexual harassment
June 2018 Women allowed to drive and obtain drivers' licences
August 2019
  • Women allowed to travel abroad, apply for passports, without permission from their male guardian, and register births, marriages, divorces and deaths. 
  • Retirement age equalized for women and men at 60 years. The retirement age for women was previously 55 years. 
November 2020 Women allowed to organize trips for tourists in the kingdom



The recent changes in dressing have paved the way for local female designers to introduce creative collections that speak to the modern Saudi woman.

Saudi designer Shahd Al-Shehail is a good example. Her ethical fashion label Abadia merges traditional crafts with contemporary designs in garments that are hand-embroidered largely within Saudi Arabia.

Sadu, a geometric hand-woven embroidery form typical of Bedouin communities, has been part of Abadia since it was launched in 2016. The designer has also created a collection that reintroduces naqda, a traditional technique of weaving thin metallic threads into lightweight fabrics such as silk and tulle.

Additionally, the farwa, an oversized winter coat traditionally worn by Bedouin men to survive the harsh desert winter, has become Abadia’s signature piece.

Combining femininity with luxury fabrics and handcrafted details, these floaty yet structured garments reflect the new generation of Arab women leaders. Notably, Abadia’s farwa was worn by Queen Rania of Jordan to her daughter’s graduation in the United Kingdom in 2018.

Samah Khashoggi is another Saudi designer who has transformed the traditional abaya, incorporating silk and lace into basic fabrics to suit different times of the day.

In October this year, she became the first designer to showcase her collection on a Saudi cruise, revealing a collection inspired by the Red Sea. Her unconventional abaya designs merge traditional metalwork from the Hijaz region with blue, turquoise, and white and coral motifs.

“It’s interesting to see young Saudi fashion designers who want to retain the cultural heritage and they’re translating it in a contemporary way. Now we’re seeing designers incorporating the Sadu fabrics in a lot of their designs,” said Mossalli, whose Niche Arabia organized the Red Sea fashion show.


In a first, Saudi Arabia holds fashion show on Red Sea shores



Saudi Arabia has big plans to develop its fashion industry and opened a new Fashion Commission and national scholarship programs for homegrown talents.

“Fashion in Saudi Arabia has always been an industry that is halal for women. We can access fashion and be fashion designers without having to interact with men. Now we also have female firefighters and policewomen, professions that were dominated by men. It’s not always about being the first. We need to get out of this realm and start thinking about being the best in our field internationally,” said Mossalli.

The remarkable pace and breadth of Saudi Arabia’s women’s rights reforms has yielded significant improvements in female labor force participation, taking it up from 10% in the second quarter of 2016 to 31.4% in the same period of 2020, according to the country’s General Authority of Statistics.

As women increasingly participate in the workforce, they are gaining more confidence and asserting themselves in public spaces.

For Akeel, the reform that’s had the biggest impact on her life was the lifting of the driving ban.  “Driving is symbolic of a lot of other freedoms. Before you can engage in sports, for example, the fact that you can get there on your own without anybody taking you, that’s huge. It’s a very independent process and a gateway to all other elements,” she said.

The new sense of freedom and empowerment that came with such mobility has encouraged many women to step outside their comfort zones.

When Mossalli first approached her inner circle to be part of her book Under the Abaya, most women wanted to hide their faces and remain anonymous.

By the time she got to publishing the first edition, almost all of these women wanted to not only show their faces but to also include their Instagram profiles.

“What has shifted is that it’s no longer taboo to be out in the spotlight. That has happened because of people. HRH Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud [Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States] has written the foreword for our second edition; she’s out there showing herself. HRH Princess Al Joharah Bint Talal Al Saud [an entrepreneur who has several businesses in Saudi Arabia] is also featured in our book.”

“These are women who even though are open and active in society, were [previously] hesitant to show themselves. Now that this is no longer taboo, we’re seeing that change from the top down,” explained Mossalli.


To build a thriving fashion industry in the country, Saudi Arabia is heavily investing in local talents. In November 2019, the Ministry of Culture hosted the inaugural Fashion Futures conference in Riyadh, where it announced the launch of a Fashion Commission and scholarships for four Saudi fashion designers at the Parsons School of Design in New York.

A year later, the Ministry launched the Fashion Incubator Program with a virtual hackathon to support Saudi students, entrepreneurs, and self-employed individuals in the local fashion sector.

And it is not just the government that’s supporting the growth of the fashion industry.

All of the proceeds from the sale of Under the Abaya book are dedicated to Niche Arabia’s Fashion Design Scholarship Fund, which offers scholarships to aspiring fashion design students in financial need.

“One hundred percent of the funds go to the scholarship program and now with COVID, we’re looking at other ways we can help, maybe more workshops for vocational reasons. We always want to give back,” said Mossalli.

Zay Initiative has also revealed it was offering scholarships to support five women to return to the workplace. These women will work remotely from home and be able to fit their work around their family lives if required. They will be tasked with researching and writing about each garment within the Zay collection and assist with the documentation process.

“We are giving out the scholarships this coming year to empower women especially during these times when people are struggling to find work, have a career and hold on to their jobs,” said Dr Reem Tariq El Mutwalli, founder of Zay Initiative.

(Reporting by Heba Hashem; Editing by Emmy Abdul Alim

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