A senior Saudi cleric has said that women should not be required to wear abayas during his Friday television program.
Sheikh Abdullah Al-Mutlaq, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars, argued that the long loose-fitting robe that the kingdom currently requires women to wear in public is unnecessary to preserve modesty.
“More than 90 percent of pious Muslim women in the Muslim world do not wear abayas,” Sheikh Al-Mutlaq said, according to The National.
“So we should not force people to wear abayas.”
Saudi media has jumped on the comments, claiming they are the first of their kind to come from such a senior religious leader. The local media has also linked the comments to recent reforms within the kingdom, which have significantly eased conservative restrictions on women.
Under the leadership of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, women's rights have increased dramatically. Already under former King Abdullah, Saudi women were granted the right to vote and run in local elections, which they did for the first time in December of 2015.
Most iconically, women were granted the right to drive in the kingdom via a royal decree last September.
Although Sheikh Al-Mutlaq was simply sharing his opinion and not issuing any kind of official decision, his words are seen by many as a sign of a major shift in attitude toward conservative attire in the kingdom.
In the past, women have faced arrest and detention for refusing to wear the abaya in public.
In late 2016, a Saudi woman was arrested for tweeting a photo of herself going to breakfast in Riyadh without hijab or abaya. Last year, a social media star was also detained after a video of herself walking through a Saudi historic site wearing a mini-skirt went viral.