Women in Saudi Arabia have been obliged to wear abayas (floor-length garments) in public for decades, but with how things have been going recently, it looks like this might be changing soon. There has been a shift in attitude toward the conservative attire in recent years, with several clerics speaking up against forcing it on women. 

The latest person to comment on the matter is Saudi Islamic scholar Ahmed bin Qasim Al Ghamdi. 

"I don't see why a woman should be forced to wear an abaya in public. If she wears something that covers her body and hair, it's permissible regardless of the color or model of her clothes," he said during a televised appearance on Rotana Khalijiya's program Etijahat

The scholar went on to add that Quranic verses related to the floor-length garments speak of a time period that's completely different from the current era. He also explained that he lived in the country's Southern region back in the late 70's and was witness to the fact that Saudi women didn't don abayas in public back then. 

In other comments he made during his appearance, Al Ghamdi also said he's against face coverings and believes they are a hindrance to women today. The scholar isn't the only public figure to speak out against the abaya rule but his statements still managed to stir up controversy on Twitter. 

Many thought his statements go against the kingdom's values and traditions while others questioned his perspective. Some were upset because they felt the man's comments might be paving the way for an official change in rules relating to what women have to wear in public. Others were all for his statements and thought it was about time to drop the mandatory abaya rule to further ease conservative restrictions on women.

Some completely disagreed with Al Ghamdi

"Black floor-length garments are the least attractive so they're better for women."

"We won't let go of our hijabs or our values"

"What does he want? We won't let go of our hijabs or our values. What's more beautiful than our girls walking out of their schools and colleges all modest? The hijab is something to be proud of. Also, we're applying what came in God's book and we don't need such edicts." 

Others were all for his point, though

"Of course, a woman is free to choose what she wears." 

Some highlighted this point

"Modesty is for both men and women, I don't know why all religious edicts are only focused on women."

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince and the kingdom's top cleric previously spoke against the mandatory abaya

In 2018, the kingdom's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was interviewed by journalist Norah O'Donnell. During the interview with U.S. television channel CBS News, MBS said - among other things - that Sharia law does not require women to wear the hijab and abaya.

That same year, Sheikh Abdullah Al-Mutlaq, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars, argued that the long loose-fitting robe is unnecessary to preserve modesty.

"More than 90 percent of pious Muslim women in the Muslim world do not wear abayas. So we should not force people to wear abayas," Al-Mutlaq said at the time. 

Saudi media jumped on the comments, claiming they were the first of their kind to come from such a senior religious leader. Al Mutlaq's statements were also linked to recent reforms within the kingdom, many of which were passed to grant women rights they were previously denied. 

Saudi women continue their fight against the rule

Though Saudi women have been winning their rights one after the other in recent months, including their right to drive and travel without the permission of a male guardian, they still can't freely choose what to wear in public. 

At the time being, Saudi law - which is based on a fundamentalist interpretation of Sharia law - still forces women, both foreign and local, to wear an abaya when out in public spaces. Locals are also obliged to wear a hijab in some parts of the kingdom, including the capital city Riyadh.

Women who go against the law risk detainment and can face legal trouble. In late 2016, a Saudi woman was arrested for tweeting a photo of herself going for breakfast in Riyadh without hijab or abaya. A year later, a social media star was also detained after a video of herself walking through a Saudi historic site wearing a mini-skirt went viral.

Thousands of Saudi women have long been fighting against the mandatory abaya rule. Last year, many of them launched an online campaign under the Arabic hashtag "Abaya Inside Out" in protest of the kingdom's law. 

The campaign asked women to stand in solidarity with the cause by posting photos of themselves in abayas flipped inside out as "a silent objection to being pressured to wear it," as one Twitter user put it. 

This wasn't the only similar movement to take place in 2018. That same year, hundreds of Saudi women joined an online movement started by Taraf Alasiri which saw them remove their niqabs and hijabs.