Sometimes, change takes place in society extremely slowly, so slowly that you hardly notice it. That change can be for better or worse. But the particular change I have in mind has got me thinking. The justification for it has yet to hit me.
A few years ago, up until the mid-eighties, young girls here were not obliged by society to wear abayas. Most girls did not wear them until they almost reached puberty — about 12 years. Recently, however, I have been seeing most Saudi girls, some as young as seven, wearing abayas. For a moment I thought it was just an occasional thing. But as I went out, whether it was to a local mall or a restaurant or a public hospital as I did a couple of days ago, I realized that it has now become the norm that little girls wear abayas; it now would be abnormal to see a little girl not wearing one.
This change that has taken place over the past six to seven years happened without people, especially sociologists, noticing it. The change, whether we like it or not, has now become part of our culture: To cover up little girls as young as seven in black abayas when they go out in public.
Ask any Saudi or foreigner who has lived here in the past 20 years and he will tell you that this was never the case in the past.
I remember praying in the Grand Mosque in Makkah during Eid in the late eighties and seeing little girls all dressed up for the occasion. I remember seeing boys wearing their new white or red headgear and new white thobes. I also remember girls wearing neat new dresses usually in white or light colors with new shoes for holiday. As children, not adults, they would run and play, enjoying the Eid spirit, exchanging gifts and candy, and doing everything children their age anywhere do.
Is our society becoming more restrictive than it already is? I keep asking myself that question.
The change in clothes for females in the past and present was a topic I discussed with some acquaintances over a dinner gathering. One Saudi from the Al-Ghamdi tribe mentioned how in Al-Baha, 30 years ago, Bedouin women did not use to wear abayas. They traditionally wore long dresses and covered their faces with a burqu that revealed only their eyes.
He reminded me of an old issue of National Geographic from 1982. In that issue was a special section about Saudi Arabia; there were photos of Bedouin women, dressed exactly as he described them.
There are those who defend women wearing black abayas in our country and there are those who do not. The fact of the matter is that whatever the two parties may argue, girls who have not reached puberty should not be deprived of their childhood, their moment of joy and happiness.
If the purpose of a woman wearing an abaya in our country is to conceal the shape of her body from preying eyes and to appear modest in public, then a girl who is seven years has nothing to do with either “body shape” or “modesty.” Her age and innocence have nothing to do with the adult world and its problems in Saudi Arabia.
When I see how families dress up little girls in black abayas I get both disturbed and offended at the same time. I get disturbed because I realize that that poor child has nothing to do with society or its problems. The child is at an age where she should be having fun and growing up in a normal way without any hang-ups. I feel offended because I feel that her parents who dress her up in a black abaya at such an early age think most of their fellow Saudi men are sexual freaks who would actually look at a girl her age in a sexual manner and make it necessary for her to be covered up in black.
While in 1984, it was abnormal for a little Saudi girl to wear an abaya, 20 years later, it has become abnormal for such a girl to not wear one — a 180-degree change. How will it be in 2014? Will the social changes in our country force girls to also cover their hair at the age of seven in addition to their wearing abayas? Will we be seeing little girls having their faces covered as well another ten years down the line?