Saudi cleric says abaya no longer necessary for women

A Saudi woman speaks on the phone in Riyadh

A Saudi woman speaks on the phone in Riyadh

Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq, a member of the top Muslim clerical body in Saudi Arabia, said that women should not be obliged to wear abayas as the goal of the Sharia code is to cover the entire body with any long and loose-fitting garment, whether using a cloak or any form of modest clothing.

"More than 90 per cent of pious Muslim women in the Muslim world do not wear abayas", Sheikh Mutlaq said during his television programme on Friday.

The move comes amid reform attempts - including greater freedoms for women - being led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

"As we see in Mecca and Medina, a large number of decent, religious women do not wear abayas".

A member of the Council of Senior Scholars, Sheikh Abdullah Al-Mutlaq, argued that the abayas women now wear are unnecessary to preserve modesty.

Only the government-appointed clerics associated with the Council of Senior Scholars are allowed to issue fatwas, or Islamic legal opinions.

Saudi Arabia, which has some of the world's tightest restrictions on women, requires them to wear the garment by law. Open abayas over long skirts or jeans are also becoming more common in some parts of the country. Local media reported that she was detained after a complaint was filed with the religious police.

These are some of the many changes the country has undergone in recent months, hailed as proof of a new progressive trend in the deeply conservative Muslim Kingdom. Activists have blasted the country's guardianship system which requires a male family member to grant permission for a woman to study overseas, travel and other activities.