It was the first Friday in Ramadan and Umm Muhammad’s boss was assigning duties to the women at the Grand Mosque in Mecca. “Form a human chain if you need to but remember to control the women,” he said. The women set off for King Fahd Gate, a central gateway to the Ka’aba, the holiest site in Islam, a sanctuary for Muslims worldwide.

The women in their long black robes walked across the white marble, faces shielded from the harsh sun by a niqab, hands and feet covered in black. Their silent march, cloaked by the abaya (burqa), hid their shape and identity. They were merely 20 of the 10,000 employees on duty on one of the busiest days of the year.

Umm Muhammad took a seat on a large wooden chair at Gate 26, her stoic posture interrupted by a WhatsApp message. She lifted her veil to read it.

“There is a 7 per cent increase in pilgrims this season compared to the last. The number has already reached over 6 million,” wrote a member of the group.“This increase will come at a cost,” someone responded.

The members of the group yearned for a time past, before the extension when the Grand Mosque—called Haram by Muslims—was an intimate place and its workers a family.

“We are at the mercy of the young prince,” wrote another.

Umm Muhammad quickly deleted the messages and slid her veil back on. 

When she started working in the early 1980s her task was to ensure that women maintained decorum, their appearance was consistent with the ideology of the Imams. If she saw a woman struggle with her scarf, she would adjust it. If a young girl let her hair loose, she would tie it. This ensured the sanctity of the mosque as a site of purity, free of temptations.

The Mecca of today, for her, is a bothersome affair.

Women from the adjacent five-star hotels walked in with lips so big that they looked like they’d been stung by bees. Dishevelled women showed up in maxis fresh out of bed. Some walked the corridors in beach hats and sunglasses. As far as she could tell, the abaya colour of the season was pink.

“It’s hard to tell where the mall ends and the mosque begins,” she said.

Moments later, a helicopter appeared and when the images were broadcast around the world, the cameras missed one crucial fact: Instead of black and white, people were rising and bowing to God in a rainbow of colours.



he veil in Saudi Arabia is an outcome of politics. For a long time, this part of the Arabian Peninsula was a secretive Bedouin land, where tribe fought tribe. In 1932, the modern state came into being. It was based on an 18th-century pact between the al-Saud clan and devout clerics who abided by the teachings of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a fiery theologian.

From the predominant black and white, the Grand Mosque hosts devotees in a range of colours, a sign of Islam's cross-cultural roots. Photo: Naira Allana Allen

Laws in the kingdom follow an orthodox version of Sharia that incorporates many desert traditions cloaked in Islam. The full covering for women is thought to be one of these and was—until recently—enforced by a morality police known as Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV).

Elsewhere, the Middle East—from 1920 to 1960—witnessed a  relaxation in orthodoxy with unveiling, an aspiration for a modernity defined by the West. At the same time, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, a transnational Sunni Islamist organisation, pushed for a counter-movement calling for a repudiation of western imperialism and upheld the veil as a symbol of Islamic values.

As the House of Saud consolidated power it was fearful of ideas of nationalism that had cast their shadow on the Middle East in the Fifties and Sixties. These impulses prioritised loyalty and identification with a nation-state rather than religion. The new state was also insecure about the pan-Arabism espoused by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser that often targeted monarchies. By the 1970s the stage was set for an “Arab Cold War” that pitted Nasser’s pan-Arabist socialism against Saudi Wahhabism.

The year 1979 proved to be critical. The Iranian Revolution and a siege of the Grand Mosque by armed civilians calling for an overthrow of the House of Saud resulted in a kingdom-wide crackdown by the religious police who imposed the most conservative norms. Central to the conservative crusade was the castigation of women for being enticed by western influence, for speaking in voices that might seduce men, for venturing out without male guardians, for dishonouring Allah by failing to be draped in black.



he afternoon brought an altercation in Haji Mahmoud’s house. It was nearing Asr prayers and his younger daughter Tasneem appeared in an abaya with pink and purple rhinestones.

“I won’t go out with her like that,” said Hanan, the elder of the two, as she fastened her black hijab.

Allahuakbar, Allahuakbar. God is Great. God is Great.

The couple were saved by the call of prayer as Tasneem rushed out in a navy blue scarf.

By the 1990s, the oil boom that transformed the economy transformed perceptions. The Saudi abaya became an emblem of prosperity,

For the past three decades, the Libyan couple spent the month of Ramadan in Mecca and on days like this they longed for the time gone when the sisters ran up and down the rocky hills with new friends they’d made from Yemen to Syria. But those days were in the past like the hills that were levelled and covered with cranes that built luxury towers row after row.

With the death of the matriarch, the traditional Libyan outfit, the white farrashia, lay in the back of an unused closet. When the girls came of age, Sarah, their mother took them to the bazaar, a series of small stalls abutting the Haram where they bought plain black scarves from South Asian store keepers. Black, a colour of modesty, became a de facto uniform.

By the 1990s, the Saudi oil boom that transformed the economy also transformed perceptions. The Saudi abaya became an emblem of prosperity and the family’s Yemeni friends shed their own colourful Sanaa’ni, a curtain-style dress and adopted the abaya even though it was not a part of their tradition.

“People from the region saw Saudi as a land of opportunity,” said Sarah. By the time of the first Gulf War, the image of women in black in the mosque was entrenched.

The sisters walked in the cool mosque, under arched domes and chandeliers, past hundreds of men praying on green carpets seeking a place to pray. They found a spot under exposed pipes and a large air conditioning duct with a makeshift wall that read “Caution, Work Area, Keep Distance.” Many women were leaning against it, in black and white and beige scarves, laughing among each other in zebra print dupattas.

“The wars changed everything,” said Hanan, when Tasneem pointed out a lady in a Dolce and Gabbana abaya with lemons on it.

The abaya is an expression of faith, allegiance to the Ummah, a source of solidarity with Palestine, a call for minority rights, a fashion statement and a medium for controlling women.

Pilgrims draped in the black Iranian chador declined in number, followed by the Syrians. The Qataris stopped coming and the number of Yemenis dwindled. In their Facebook group, Israeli Muslims informed them they weren’t being issued visas. Each conflict brought an infusion of colour. The Haram reflected a transforming Saudi Arabia where the largest contingent in 2019 is from Pakistan.



rom the abaya to the chador, the  Taliban burqa to the colourful hijab, Islamic veiling has generated controversy and debates on gender equality. No other garment has been characterised by more attempts at regulation nor been representative in discussions around modernity. Dissidents classify it as regressive, while the devout view it as revolutionary. It has been marked by military encounters. Of late, changing cultural expression has produced a new aesthetic called Modest Fashion.

Security personnel catch a nap at the Grand Mosque. Photo: Alia Allana

The abaya means different things to different people. It is an expression of faith, an allegiance to the Ummah, a source of solidarity to Palestine, a call for minority rights, a fashion statement and a medium for controlling women. Gone are the days of the plain, voluminous, uniform black robe—today’s abaya, dubbed “abaya-as- fashion,”—is available in an array of cuts, colours, and fabrics embellished with decorations.

Many designers draw inspiration from western fashion, while others pull from styles and cultures around the world. The abaya is not simply religious or cultural, but an expression of individuality for women across the Islamic world and if fashion helps construct a social and cultural narrative, then this movement is focused on reshaping the perception of the 21st-century Muslim female identity.

Much like the fashion booms in China, Japan and the Asian markets in the aughts and early ’10s when high fashion brands revamped their strategies to appeal to the shopping habits of a freshly minted Asian clientele, a similar wave is taking over the Islamic world. The fashion industry has woken up to this underrepresented demographic, with big brands cashing in on the Modest Fashion movement, one of the fastest growing markets.



he numbers are arresting. A 2016 Thomson Reuters report on the state of the global Islamic economy estimates the Islamic fashion market to be valued at around $300 billion by 2020. The State of Global Islamic Economy Report 2018/2019 places fashion consumption among Muslims across the world at $270 billion, projected to grow at five per cent per annum, reaching $361 billion by 2023. This segment surpasses the clothing markets of Britain ($107 billion), Germany ($99 billion) and India ($96 billion) combined.

The "Gold Cage" or barricade that segregates the sexes. Photo: Alia Allana

Modest fashion is a commercial phenomenon. The industry recognises this. Dolce & Gabbana was one of the first luxury designers to enter the market and though their creations are engineered for modesty, they have the flair of any other Dolce & Gabbana piece, with jewel-encrusted lemons and black lace. New York based brand Marchesa designs kaftans for modest shoppers and Nike has released a line called Nike Pro hijab.

There is also a rise in hijab-wearing models, led by Halima Aden from Kenya, first to the cover of Vogue, to walk in Kanye West’s Season 5 and also be on the cover of Sports Illustrated in May in a burkini. Aden represents not just the market but also the fashion buzzword of the moment: diversity. Modest fashion bloggers and Instagram stars have millions of followers that are challenging stereotypes. The first issue of Vogue Arabia featured features edits on “How to Style Your Hair Under a Hijab,” and the season’s most stylish abayas.

The abaya separated her from duniya (this worldliness) and transported her to the sacred. A cloth could bring about a reawakening from daily life to divine presence. 

With Dubai the Mecca for modest fashion, a reinterpretation of style is underway where faith and modernity go hand in hand as Arab abaya designers also deviate from classic blacks. Abayas now feature open fronts with lace and leather, some like Toushih’s over-sized tux and blazers, others like a floor-length trench in beige. Abayas are decorated with athletic-inspired stripes, pearl beads, floral embroidery and some look like they’ve been borrowed from the wardrobe of Hamid Karzai.



hree weeks ago, Hajra Bibi was in the market in Lahore selling her gold bangles. Anything to get to Mecca. She had four sons, two of whom were working in the Gulf. They had saved enough for their mother to perform the Umrah, the lesser pilgrimage but money had fallen short. With a fistful of rupees, she returned home and secured a place on the tour which included travel, accommodation and food. With a little left over, she bought a few items for her journey.

Influenced by the stories and images of Mecca, she bought a black abaya and hijab, something she didn’t wear ordinarily. She stitched two new outfits, one for the journey and the other for Eid. On the day of her travel she began her rituals with an ablution and wore the ihram, a cloth used for performing the pilgrimage. The black abaya now separated her from duniya (this worldliness) and transported her to the sacred. A cloth could bring about a reawakening from daily life to divine presence. Unlike men who have clearly prescribed clothing rules for ihram, nothing is stipulated for women except for “modesty”.

Her bus pulled into Mecca at night but the bright lights and the number of people made it seem as though the city never slept. She went straight to the mosque. Though she had heard stories and seen countless photos of it nothing would prepare her for the sheer size of the Grand Mosque. She walked the cool corridors, admiring the lights with Allah written on them and the intricately carved facades. When the call to prayer was sounded, she prayed between a woman from Africa and one from China. When she finally rested her eyes on the Ka’aba draped in black with thousands encircling it, an intensity of emotions took over.

With tears pouring down her face, she whispered,“Labaik, Aallah humma Labaik,” (Here I am, oh Allah, Here I am).

When she circumambulated, she recited the verses she remembered, walked one round repenting her sins and when she could remember not much else, she just chanted, “Ya Allah, Ya Allah” (Oh God, Oh God).

Three days later, when her emotions had stabilised, she plucked up the courage to touch the Ka’aba. But first, she would get rid of the abaya.

“There was no need for it,” she said and shoved it in a plastic bag and stashed it under a rack. There were thousands of women from Pakistan, most in their own attire, unfazed by the curious. She cut past the first row where old women circled the Ka’aba resting on the hands of other women, husbands, brothers and sons. She crossed the second row where women walked in groups, past men who carried their children on their shoulders. Past another row where a man pushing a wheelchair almost ran her over, and again past bodies that got heavier and sweatier, where the chants and prayers all mixed together to produce one collective breath and then pushed to end and rest her hands on the soft silky black cloth draped over the Ka’aba.

When Dubai underwent its transformation from checking male and female passengers in cars to opening the doors to the best nightclubs in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia staunchly remained in the past.

She brought her face to it and she wept. Moments later, when someone pushed on her back, she slid out, and fell back upon bodies that were moving slowly around her drenched in sweat. Just as she was about to fall to the ground, a man distributing dates gave her a foldable chair on which she collapsed. Heaving simultaneously from exhaustion and ecstasy, her dupatta fell off displaying hair coloured in the henna shade known as Disco Red.



he mutawa are gone. Since the 1920s, the monarchy relied upon an institutionalised morality police to enforce the laws that bound the Wahhabi elite to the house of al-Saud. The CPVPV acted as the executive arm of the ulema, complementing standard law enforcement. The bearded religious police, also known as the Mutaween (the pious), the hay’a (the commission) roamed the streets and malls, separating men from women, prohibiting music and alcohol and ensuring the propriety of women, that not a strand of hair fell out of place. Their legitimacy was drawn from the doctrine of hisbah that designates the state divine sanctity in encouraging virtue and forbidding vice. Over the years, the Mutaween have acted as a notorious self-regulating force, their zeal peaking in 2002 when 15 schoolgirls died in Mecca because the CPVPV allegedly prevented them from fleeing a burning building as they were unveiled.

In 2016, amid a reform drive, the government increased curbs on the religious police, barring them from making arrests. In 2017, the Shura Council, an influential advisory body to the government began discussions on a merger between the religious police with the ministry of Islamic affairs, further curbing their authority. These changes are a part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MbS) plan known as Vision 2030, a roadmap for the kingdom as it aims to diversify the Gulf’s largest economy away from oil.

While oil made Saudi Arabia rich, it also stunted its ability to diversify its economy. When Dubai underwent its transformation from checking male and female passengers in cars to opening the doors to the best nightclubs in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia staunchly remained in the past. But that is changing. Cinemas have re-opened. Enrique Iglesias performs alongside the Black Eyed Peas in Riyadh. Encouraged by a close friendship between MbS and MbZ, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Riyadh is pushing to develop tourism while trying to attract investment to the private sector.

At the centre of Vision 2030 is the encouragement to Islamic tourism.  There is great money to be made: Hajj and umrah revenue is estimated to surpass $250 billion by 2022. Bolstering numbers will lead to bigger profit. Before the mid-1950s, the number of overseas pilgrims rarely exceeded 100,000.By the early 2000s, the number of Hajj pilgrims had passed the 2 million mark. Vision 2030’s ambitious goal is to host 30 million holidaymakers a year by 2030 while upgrading infrastructure and amusement facilities to capitalise on the largest congregation of Muslim consumers eager to receive not just spiritual but material nourishment.

Bold statements from MbS indicated a change was in the offing .

“The laws are very clear and stipulated in the laws of Sharia [Islamic law]: that women wear decent, respectful clothing, like men…This, however, does not particularly specify a black abaya or black head cover. The decision is entirely left for women to decide what type of decent and respectful attire she chooses to wear,” he told CBS TV in March 2018. Saudi designer Awra al Banawi’s, famed for her cutting-edge suiting and the must-have “Suitable Woman Dress” and t-shirt that reads “we are a kingdom” showed her collection at Riyadh’s first fashion week at the Ritz Carlton, the same hotel where the country’s biggest businessmen were locked up in an anti-corruption drive. Under the veneer of reform is a stubborn old order. 

“The fashion week was a women’s only affair, even the photographers were women,” said Hessa B, a Saudi-educated in London.

“Even if the newspapers report a “spring,” breaking away from tradition is almost sacrilegious,” said Maha M, wife of a prominent Saudi industrialist.

A reinterpretation of fashion with faith and modernity as its touchstones has occurred but rules have remained: Full sleeves, ankle length, no cleavage, no sheer fabric.

Despite reforms, women’s rights activists were being thrown into jail. Then came the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi. On the back of the international uproar was news that Saudi Arabia’s media regulator was investigating a television anchor for her “immodest” clothing while she reported the lifting of the driving ban. She wore a white abaya and white shayla that exposed a part of her trousers and shirt when the wind lifter her robe. Soon after, women took to social media in Saudi Arabia wearing their abayas inside out as part of a stealthy feminist protest accompanied with the hashtag #Abaya_Insideout and #ForcedtoWearIt.

A reinterpretation of fashion with faith and modernity as its touchstones has occurred but rules have remained: Full sleeves, ankle length, no cleavage, no sheer fabric. Colourful abayas are soft signals of resistance, fragile fireflies in the dark sea of Islamic patriarchy. It is a quantum of freedom in the universe of confinement.

In Saudi Arabia women outnumber men among university graduates, but make up less than one quarter of the workforce. One of the goals of Vision 2030 is to ensure that women comprise 30 per cent of the workforce from 22 per cent right now. A post-oil Saudi Arabian future needs women to work, and a dash of colour can be tolerated.



adhlan could see the Haram from her suite at the Intercontinental Hotel. It had been booked months in advance. Indonesians, she explained, flocked to Mecca in Ramadan like Europeans to the French Riveria in summer. She kept an eye on one of the doors to the Haram. Despite the vastness of the mosque, green barricades went up well in advance to manage the crowd and when the mosque was full, it was almost impossible to gain entry. With the other eye, she focused on a YouTube tutorial on how to fasten the hijab. She practised a new variation looping it twice on her head like a turban, with precision, so as to not show a strand of hair. She wore the hijab out of choice, the fabric not a prison or a statement but a part of her identity.

She opened her cupboard, showing a colourful selection. She shopped as a hobby and, a modest fashion website, was one of her most visited sites. “An abaya should be a reflection of your mood,” she said and fingered her exquisite collection. Silk. Linen. Georgette. She stopped at a Vivi Zubedi creation that had debuted at New York Fashion Week. It read Makkah, Madinah, Jannah on gold on the back, a highly-sought number that usually sold out minutes after it dropped online.

She wore it like a jacket and teamed it with a beige hijab and Tom Ford aviators, rushed to the mosque and hunted for a good spot. There was a small enclosure, of golden bookshelves, for women at the entrance. Aside from being full, it was far from the Ka’aba. She walked around and after being pushed about for a few minutes made her way up the escalators to the first floor where she chanced upon an empty spot overlooking the Ka’aba. The gold embroidery with verses from the Quran looked resplendent and with time to spare, she took selfies with the Ka’aba in the backdrop. Unsatisfied with cranes which poked above it and the grey incomplete buildings, she angled herself to fit the Ka’aba in the frame with no distractions. She edited the image to post on Instagram.

The veil isn’t a recent invention, nor is it Islamic. Since  1250 BCE Assyrian women and widows were expected to cover their heads in public. Women were a “financial asset for the family” and head covering was practised to ensure the virginity of unmarried daughters.

“Through fashion we can bring about a shift in conversation about stereotypes on Muslim women,” she said.

She reached for a Quran to recite a few verses and stood when the call to prayer was sounded. A group of women had gathered and just as they raised their hands in prayer a group of men sauntered towards them demanding they leave. Islam mandates women pray behind men.

“We are equal in the Haram,” she said.

Move, demanded a man in a white kandoora. When the women refused to move, another rushed to call a mutawa and returned with a man in khaki who feebly ordered the women to move.

“We were here first,” they responded together.



he veil isn’t a recent invention, nor is it an Islamic one. Tracing the history of veiling, Gerda Lerner’s 1986 book The Creation of Patriarchy, traces its emergence to ancient Mesopotamia where since at least 1250 BCE Assyrian women and widows were expected to cover their heads in public. Women were considered a “financial asset for the family” and head covering was practised to ensure the virginity of unmarried daughters but this standard wasn’t imposed on all women equally. Prostitutes and slave girls were prevented from veiling lest they appear respectable and repercussions for breaking this dress code were severe. Lerner’s research casts light on the origins of veiling to control female sexuality and to uphold morality.

Such tendencies can also be found in the Wahhabi doctrine of commanding right and forbidding evil (al-amrbil-marūfwa al-nahīan al-munkar). According to this, women’s exclusion from the public space is imposed to ensure the piety of its female subjects as a symbol of the nation’s authenticity. The Saudi state has relied on this for the historical subordination of women and their persistent exclusion from the public sphere.

The faithful at Islam's holiest spot. Photo: Alia Allana

 Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Grand Mosque. The zones set aside for women are in the periphery where women never have the Ka’aba in sight. On the mezzanine floor and around the piazza overlooking the Ka’aba, all space is reserved for men.

In 2006, Suhaila Hammad, research director at the National Society for Human Rights in Saudi Arabia noted that 46 per cent of the pilgrims at the mosque were women. She writes, “If they follow the holy book and aim at a sense of equality, 46 per cent of the circumambulation area would be exclusively for women but instead, from the 18,000 square metre space, for every man there is 53.06 square cm and for each woman there is 17 square cm. Even then, that little space for women on the mataf, the space around the Ka’aba, is shielded behind screens.”

When the call to prayer sounded, with persistent interference by men, only one woman remained. She fixed her gaze on the Ka’aba, too afraid to look around and at the end of the prayer, rose, face drenched in tears. She wore a black abaya with pink, purple and turquoise stones.

There has since then been a steady erosion of space for women to pray in the mataf. There is a constant struggle to find space to pray. In the same year, a group composed of men and women in Mecca submitted a report to Prince Abdul Majeed, then governor of Mecca, that proposed “increasing the women’s prayer space in the circumambulation area”. A third of the area, they suggested, should be set apart for women. The report included a study accompanied by pictures showing how the women’s prayer area had been reduced over the last several years.

Eight months later, the presidency of the Two Holy Mosques Affair, the Haj Research Institute and the Governorate recommended that women be totally excluded from the area. Uproar ensued and the plan was chucked within two weeks. Since then, the space allocated to women has decreased and women are now shepherded into what they call a “gold cage,” steel bookshelves stacked with the Quran that prevent a view of the Ka’aba.

But the bold ones persist. At dawn prayers, a group of women were determined to pray in front of the Ka’aba. The men heckled the women, their numbers far more than the group that had gathered. A few women walked away, so the group moved further back.

Two police officers began grabbing bags and the group got smaller still. Then when the call to prayer was sounded, with the persistent interference by men, only one woman remained surrounded by hundreds of men. She fixed her gaze on the Ka’aba, too afraid to look around and at the end of the prayer, rose, face drenched in tears and walked away. She wore a black abaya with pink, purple and turquoise stones. 



hen Shoaib Ahmed arrived in Mecca from Bangladesh in 1981 as a young man to help his uncle in their clothing store abutting the haram he was amazed by the women draped in loose black fabrics that they would tuck under their arms showing off what they wore inside. “Almost always, they showed off prints with gold,” he recalled.

In the month of Ramadan, they made most of their money but fashion was basic. When he was a young man, the shayla worn over the head would engulf the upper half of the body and later when he took control of the shop in the 1990s, the Saudi abaya was all that sold, a basic full-length black sleeved cloak teamed with a black shayla for the head. In those days, when a woman tried to be bold, she would wear a sheer abaya but that was rare. Heavy fabric was socially acceptable and the women were hidden.

“Islam encourages trade,” he said as he took out abaya after abaya to show to the Malaysian women in his store. Fashion had transformed. At the front of his store now was an abaya with golden rhinestones all over the bust. He had row after row, mannequin after mannequin, in the latest styles. Abayas with lace on the arms and at the bottom, stones in all colours, the most popular this season was gold and pink, butterfly and bat abayas with wings in multi-layers. In the neighbouring store were abayas with an optional belt that highlights the waistline, with hooded extensions for a sporty look, coloured shaylas, and copies from international designers that tailors in Mecca struggled to imitate, abayas which were no longer used to cover but word as a fashion.

“Fashion is changing so fast. You can thank the young prince for that,” said Shoaib.

But on the top shelf in a plastic bag he always kept the traditional Saudi abaya. In his decades at Mecca, he had noticed that in the end orthodoxy always came back.