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The active abaya to defy Saudi dress standards

Thanks to inspiring drivers such as Baraah Alluhaidan, Saudi women are gradually debunking the abaya. Since they cannot completely get rid of it, they are reshaping it into more modern clothing fitting with their new lifestyles, which are more sportive and more active… or even more hyperactive !

At a time when, for the first time in the world, jeans sales are declining in favor of tracksuits, a similar trend may well be emerging in Saudi Arabia. Young sports and fashion designers are using their talents to free women from the yoke of their traditional outfit in order to make them able to practice their favorite sport, while keeping a decent appearance.

A revolution happening fast

Photos of these women running or cycling in an abaya have recently flooded social networks. If they marked the general opinion with messages either supporting, either disapproving -the latter of which are more numerous in the Kingdom – that’s because they are quite unconventionally dressed. First of all, they are wearing “sport abayas”, specially shaped to practice sport more easily. Secondly, they wear colored versions of these traditionally all-black dresses. They chose pistachio, sky blue or pink, colors fitting best with the extreme climate of the country, and also with summer trends! Thus, they defy the country’s well-known old saying that “if it’s not black, it’s not an abaya”.


These new sport abayas emerged very discreetly about ten years ago. Baraah Alluhaidan was at the forefront of these pioneers. With her brother, she founded her company Spokes Hub, the only women’s cycling shop in the Kingdom, which now drives a whole community of young people defending gender equality. With an overflowing vivacity, she tells her beginnings: “Basically, the whole thing started when I began using a bicycle, commuting from my home to the gym.” Of course with the women driving ban, this professional sport coach had no other choice to get to her place of work. But even with a bike, nothing was won.“ Well, it’s a matter of fact that the abaya is always stuck in the bike’s chain and sometimes in its gears, she explains,  It was like a dream for me. But other people were against that. All my friends were saying: “Imagine yourself on a bicycle with the abaya. You can’t do that!

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Like the fashion designer Eman Joharjy, who became famous for her sports abaya collections, it all started with homemade alterations on their own abayas for their daily activities. And from sportive abaya to active abaya, there was only one step, explains Baraah: “ I had to find a solution. So I developed a couple of designs. There was a lot of hustle, honestly. Now I have a full design of a cycling abaya. And it turned out to be an active abaya.”


Free women from traditional shackles without destroying them

This colorful and sporty abaya, which was once a symbol of rebellion, has become a trend today. A proof that things are progressively improving for women in a country where the abaya is deeply rooted in identity and culture. While women’s physical or professional activities, as well as their mobility, are gaining ground, social practices and mentalities are adapting to these changes. These avant-garde women have forecast the growing need to give more women the opportunity to move, and they have successfully launched their own activities. “All the Saudi women can wear it for their daily life use. And, thank God, I’ve been nominated to present my design in Saudi Design Week 2017”, tells Baraah with sparkling eyes. And they put a lot of energy in it: “I’m super active. And I like giving this vibe to everyone around me. Especially to women who have, here, a couple of barriers. One of them is culture. Another is… I don’t want to talk about religion, but some people take it as a barrier, if you know what I mean. So, I’m just trying to take it (sport activities, ed) to another level where it’s easier for them, and more suitable to do sports and cycling.

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Baraah Aluhaidan

Published on 23 August 2018