Wearing her trademark black niqab, Amy Roko sits in the driver’s seat of a bright red car, parked in front of a spattering of palm trees typical of Gulf landscapes. Confidently claiming her role as a female trailblazer and symbol of the future generation of Saudi women, the social media star, who has an Instagram following that’s 1.5 million strong, appears on one of three covers of the second edition of Under the Abaya: Street Style from Saudi Arabia. “Amy Roko is a rapper and content creator who in her niqab disrupts the typical stereotype of a niqab-wearing Saudi Muslim girl, so we thought she was very relevant,” says Marriam Mossalli, founder and editor of Under the Abaya.
Shattering stereotypes is one of the main objectives of Under the Abaya, a book filled with fashion photographs, the first edition of which was released in 2018. That same year, His Royal Highness Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman announced that the abaya would now be an optional – not mandatory – garment for Saudi women.
Abayas have nonetheless remained key garments for women in the Kingdom, who appreciate them for the elements of culture, modesty and style they have eternally been interwoven with. “Even with our fashion choices suddenly now limitless, we Saudi women continue to opt for our traditional abaya, confirming to the world not just what we already knew, but what the world didn’t want to believe: that the abaya was never a garment of patriarchal suppression, but rather an extension of our own cultural identity,” explains Marriam.
Jumanah Shaheen by Maram Hassan
She has witnessed the past decade’s transformation of style in Saudi first-hand. A pioneering Saudi fashion editor, she is credited for launching the “life and style” section at Arab News and is the founder of luxury communications agency Niche Arabia. In 2018, she earned a spot on the British Fashion Council’s “100 New Wave Creatives’ list, and is also featured on the Business of Fashion 500 community.
Marriam says she was surprised by the initial response to her call for submissions for Under the Abaya’s first edition. Having assumed that many women would want to keep their faces hidden and identities private, in line with widespread cultural norms, she was happy to see that an overwhelming number of participants were confident about having their faces shown, and even their Instagram account names listed. She attributes this to the rise in popularity of several sheikhas of the Kingdom, such as Princess Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz and Princess Al Johara Bint Talal Al Saud, who are leading increasingly active lives in the spotlight. “Seeing these high-profile women putting themselves out there in the public has really inspired the masses to follow suit,” says Marriam.
More than 350 women are featured in the second edition of Under the Abaya. Evocative and inspiring, the photographs feature a range of personalities who are active, athletic, adventurous and share a collective agenda: to lift the veil of assumptions and prejudices that the rest of the world often projects onto them. “Even in 2021, the world still needs to be educated about the Middle East,” Marriam states. “We still have an abundance of stereotypes and I think the Western media doesn’t do anything to fight that, so it is up to us as locals to narrate our own stories and give that point of view – no one else is going to do that for us.”
Amy Roko, a Saudi influencer with an Instagram following of 1.5 million, features on the cover of Under The Abaya: Street Style from Saudi Arabia, photographed by Lina Mo
Marriam acknowledges that Under the Abaya has certainly evolved beyond its humble beginnings as a coffee-table fashion book. Its Instagram page is an inspiring showcase of artwork, collages and quotes championing Arab creativity, female empowerment and community building – an unprecedented platform for Saudi women. “It’s an initiative where we want to gather all of these women and support them,” she says. “So, anytime anyone has any type of workshop or news, we want to be able to share it – it’s more of a community now of women supporting women, just like the book was.”
The project also has a far-reaching impact, with profits from sales directed to academic and work scholarships for women in the Kingdom. The photographs themselves nonetheless represent an important moment in the history of Saudi fashion, marking a thrilling turning point for women’s roles in wider society. To outsiders, Saudi women have, for centuries, been characterised by a single shade and silhouette. But the metamorphosis of the country’s fashion is reflective of the dynamic social change that’s taking place. A style revolution is underway, and Under the Abaya is documenting it all, emboldening women with ambition and opportunity to excel, and taking fashion along for the ride as well.
“Modest fashion is evolving in Saudi, and I think what we’re seeing is abayas going from this really decadent luxury form into a more practical and versatile shape,” Marriam elaborates. “[We are seeing] shorter, more practical fabrics that don’t wrinkle, because now the Saudi woman is active – she’s going back and forth to work, and she doesn’t want her abaya getting stuck in the wheels of her office chair or in the car door as she drives on the streets of Saudi.”