How Saudi Arabian Women Are Using Instagram To Change The Country's Dress Code

While social media has made many a home beauty trend go international — from Kardashian contouring to armpit hair dye — a recent viral tweet took on a much more basic makeup issue: the right to wear it in public. According to NPR, conservative Saudi Arabian religious leader Ahmad Aziz Al Ghamdi surprised many of his followers when he tweeted and then went on TV to say that, no, Islam didn't require women to cover their faces in photos on Instagram.
NPR reports that his original statement prompted more than 10,000 comments on his Twitter feed — including some death threats. Undeterred, Al Ghamdi decided to appear on Saudi Arabia's most popular talk show along with his wife who wore makeup and a head-covering, but no face-covering niqab, which is typically worn by women in public. Despite the outrage, however, Al Ghamdi's position on the politically charged face veil is slowly becoming the norm in Saudi Arabia, a change in attitude that women have been taking into their own hands long before Al Ghamdi voiced his approval.
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Saudi Arabia is one of the most conservative countries in the world, where women are forbidden to drive, can't travel alone, and need male permission to undergo certain medical procedures (but Saudi women do have the right to vote and run for office in municipal elections). Yet, it's also one of the youngest. NPR reports that the majority of the population is under the age of 35, and, despite government crackdowns, social media is booming. (It is Twitter's fastest growing market.) How appropriate, then, that Al Ghamdi's decree not only came through Twitter, but was a direct response to an inquiry from a female follower who asked what was okay to show on social media.
Indeed, social media has become an outlet for women in neighboring Lebanon, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates to express their creativity through makeup. There are also rising Muslim fashion movements in the West — spearheaded by the likes of Summer Albarcha of Hipster Hijabis and Ascia Sarrha — that use social media, particularly Instagram, as a tool for empowerment, rebellion, and self-expression.
Al Ghamdi — a religious leader — can't change Saudi laws, and one can expect the debate over the niqab to continue for years. When change does come, it won't be because of one man, but because of the young women choosing to fight for what they want. After all, women in the United States didn't get the right to vote until the 1920s, and equal legal and financial rights weren't granted until well into the second half of the century — and then it was the result of constant, aggressive agitation and petitioning. If that kind of progress takes place over cell phones and via social media? We bet that things will happen a lot quicker this time.
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