Manal Fageeh never liked the abaya, the long black cloak she was forced to begin wearing at 13. She resented the fact that it was obligatory for women in Saudi Arabia, and the black absorbed heat in the often-scorching climate.
Saudi women have long been known in the West for their all-enveloping black attire, widely considered a mark of their oppression. But Sharif and Fageeh are among a growing number of women and girls here who are rethinking and reinventing the abaya to more closely reflect their personalities and religious beliefs.
The redefinition of the abaya mirrors the greater, though still limited, personal freedoms allowed in the kingdom over the past five years. A major factor in the change was the involvement of young Saudis in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Many people began to question the official Wahhabi ideology that was believed to have partly inspired the hijackers...
Saudi women bear the brunt of that puritanical ideology. They are not allowed guardianship over themselves and need male permission to marry or travel. They cannot drive or work alongside men and are forced to cover up with the abaya in public.
Since shortly after the first girls schools opened here in 1955, the abaya has been mandatory beginning in middle school. Until several years ago, members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the enforcement arm of the Wahhabi establishment, patrolled streets and malls with sticks, making sure that women were properly veiled, that men and women who were not related did not mingle and that stores closed during prayer times.