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The Saudi Dress Code Debacle

Interrogation of Woman Who Wore Skirt in Snapchat Video Sparks Anger

Screengrab from Khulood's Snapchat story.

A woman named Khulood was interrogated yesterday in Riyadh and handed over for prosecution. Her transgression? Wearing “indecent” clothing. But the same night, Saudi authorities released her without charge.

A brief Snapchat video of Khulood appeared over the weekend with her in a short skirt and top which revealed her partial midriff as she walked through the Heritage Village of Ushayqir, 100 miles north of Riyadh. Authorities in Saudi Arabia, which has a strict dress code – women must wear a loose black garment called an abaya and headscarf – considered this an act of defiance.

Saudis themselves took to Twitter to both laud and disparage her act. Some called for her trial while others pointed out that visiting foreign female dignitaries seem able to dress however they like.

News agency AFP reported that the Saudi government said in a statement today that the video had been published without Khulood’s knowledge.

While Khulood at least no longer faces trial for this act, Saudi’s strict dress code still has many impacts on women, including their ability to work. The Saudi Labor Ministry fines employers and workers who breach guidelines on sex segregation and women’s dress code, including mandatory headscarves. “Zahra,” a 25-year-old Saudi woman, told Human Rights Watch these rules mean that, “Companies don’t want to hire women. It is too much of a hassle.”

All this stands in sharp contrast to Saudi Arabia’s purported efforts to strengthen women’s role in society. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s Vision 2030 economic reform plan, for example, says Saudi women are a “great asset” and vows to let them “strengthen their future and contribute to the development of our society and economy.”

The rush to interrogate Khulood is a reminder of how far Saudi Arabia has to go. Not only can women not wear what they want in public, but they also remain subject to the most serious impediment to women’s rights there is: Saudi’s male guardianship system. From birth to death, a woman must have a male guardian – a father, husband, brother, or son – give permission before she can travel abroad, marry, or even leave prison.

But there is now hope that this sorry system could be dismantled. In April 2017, King Salman ordered all government agencies to list, within three months, the procedures that require male guardian approval. That deadline passed quietly on Saturday. Saudi women wait to find out whether any of those rules will be dropped.

If Saudi Arabia’s new leadership is serious about social change, it should end the male guardianship system in its entirety, and lift other barriers for women including sex-segregation and the dress code.

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