Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince has said women need not dress in the black abaya often seen as their expected attire throughout the kingdom.
In a wide ranging interview with US news channel CBS, Mohammed bin Salman indicated that Sharia law did not dictate that women wear the traditional garment and could choose their clothing, so long as it was respectful.
“The laws are very clear and stipulated in the laws of Sharia: that women wear decent, respectful clothing, like men,” he said.
“This, however, does not particularly specify a black abaya or a black head cover. The decision is entirely left for women to decide what type of decent and respectful attire she chooses to wear.”
The heir to the throne’s comments come as he leads a reform drive in the kingdom that aims to see women play a more active role in society.
Under his direction the kingdom has moved ahead with plans for women to enter the workforce by opening up previously barred job roles including soldiers, immigration staff and criminal investigators.
It has also announced a June deadline to allow women to drive and encouraged female participation in sports as both athletes and spectators.
The crown prince has previously stated he wishes to return the kingdom to moderate Islam and in the interview described the “very normal life” their, like the rest of the Gulf countries, before the 1979 seizure of Makkah’s Grand Mosque by extremists and establishment of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic theocracy in Iran.
“Women were driving cars. There were movie theatres in Saudi Arabia. Women worked everywhere. We were just normal people developing like any other country in the world until the events of 1979,” the crown prince said.
He described his generation were “victims” that suffered a great deal after a stricter form of Islam took hold in the kingdom, the more extremist elements of which he acknowledged still exist.
“We have extremists who forbid mixing between the two sexes and are unable to differentiate between a man and a woman alone together and their being together in a workplace,” the crown prince said.
“Many of those ideas contradict the way of life during the time of the prophet and the Caliphs. This is the real example and the true model.”
Some parts of Saudi society appear somewhat resistant to a looser dress code for women. There was an uproar last month when a member of the Council of Senior Scholars said women should dress modestly but not necessarily wear the abaya.
A Saudi woman was also briefly arrested in July after a video was uploaded online showing her walking around wearing a skirt and crop top.