In depth: Why a Saudi woman’s miniskirt sparked an outcry

A Snapchat video of a Saudi Arabian woman walking around a historic fort in Riyadh wearing a miniskirt and crop top sparked public outrage after going viral, leading to the woman being detained by police for several hours.

The video sparked a Twitter hashtag that called for her arrest, with many saying she flagrantly disobeyed Saudi rules that require all women living in the kingdom, including foreigners, to wear long, loose robes (abayas) in public. Most Saudi women also wear a headscarf.

Social media is wildly popular in Saudi Arabia as a space to vent frustrations and gauge public opinion. The outcry against the video and the woman’s subsequent arrest reveal how powerful and widespread conservative views are in the kingdom, despite recent moves by the monarchy to modernize and loosen some rules.

The woman was eventually released without charge, but the incident and the online debate it ignited point to the tension in Saudi between proponents of its conservative, state-enforced strictures and those pushing for greater rights.

Here’s a look at why the video caused such an uproar.



The woman, whose name has not been released, was in clear violation of the state-enforced dress code. Her image was blurred on Saudi news websites reporting on the case.

It is common in Saudi Arabia to see heavily blurred or pixelated images of women’s faces on billboards and storefronts — in stark contrast to the many towering images of senior male royals displayed across the country.

High-level foreign dignitaries have been the exception to the rule.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, American first lady Melania Trump and the president’s daughter, Ivanka, did not wear abayas on official visits to Saudi Arabia this year, though they did dress modestly in higher necklines and longer sleeves.

One Twitter user, whose post was shared more than 1,700 times, superimposed an image of Ivanka’s face on the young Saudi woman’s body, writing: “Enough already, the situation has been solved.”

Last December, another Saudi woman posted a picture of herself in public without the abaya on, opting for a black coat and a long, colorful skirt. She was detained and interrogated for five days. Her current legal status is unclear.



Saudi Arabia is a deeply conservative country that is governed by an austere interpretation of Islam widely known as Wahhabism, which draws heavily on the kingdom’s tribal and patriarchal customs.

The country is home to Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina, which draw millions of Muslims around the world for pilgrimage.

The kingdom is ruled by a monarch whose power is rooted in the support of influential Wahhabi clerics. Saudi judges also adhere to conservative interpretations of the faith.

Other countries are governed by Islamic law, but none enforce the Saudi government’s strict interpretation of it.
Among Orthodox Jews in nearby Israel, women are required to dress modestly and those that are married are to cover their hair.
However, women wear bathing suits on public beaches in bordering Dubai, and can be seen in jeans and shorter dresses at malls in Kuwait and Qatar.



Cafes and restaurants in Saudi Arabia are typically gender-segregated, requiring women to enter through separate doors and single men to be seated away from them.

It remains illegal for women to drive in Saudi Arabia.
In addition, women need the consent of a male relative, usually a father or husband, before they are allowed to travel abroad or obtain a passport.

Despite some openings for women in recent years, clerics in Saudi Arabia have spoken out against females working jobs where they might interact with nonfamilial males.
Most universities and schools are segregated by gender.

Most Saudi women who do work are in teaching jobs, though women have also run in local elections and hold posts in the country’s top consultative body, the Shura Council.



Saudi Arabia curbed the powers of the religious police last year.

The all-male force can no longer make arrests or pursue people in car chases, though they still patrol the streets and public places ensuring unrelated men and women are not mingling.

The religious police, officially known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, ensure that both women and men are dressed modestly.
However, men can run afoul of the rules by wearing shorts that stop at the knee or by sporting long or outlandish hairstyles.

After the miniskirt video surfaced, the religious police referred the case to other agencies to investigate it.



Women were allowed to vote for the first time in 2015, and further reforms have been promised.

In June, an announcement that public prosecution powers would be moved from under the interior minister’s purview to that of the royal court, directly under the monarch, was made.
A new attorney general was named in the reshuffling.

Also last month, the king named Prince Mohammed bin Salman the heir to the throne.
Salman, 31, has spearheaded a Vision 2030 plan to overhaul the country, which includes modernizing aspects of society.

As part of Vision 2030, the government has pushed for there to be more entertainment for youth, allowing musical concerts that were once banned and even a Comic-Con event.

Just last week, the kingdom announced that girls would be allowed for the first time to participate in school sports and have access to physical education.
Classes will be gradually implemented at public schools from September, allowing schools time to make sure qualified teachers can be found and facilities upgraded.

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