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Saudi scholar: Women need not wear abaya robes

Women should not be obliged to cover up in public with long garments, senior religious figure says.

A senior religious scholar in Saudi Arabia has said women should not have to wear the loose-fitting abaya robe to cover up their bodies in public.

Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars - the highest religious body in the country - made the remark in an interview with a local broadcaster on Friday.

"More than 90 percent of pious Muslim women in the Muslim world do not wear abayas. So we should not force people to wear abayas," he said.

The call was received with mixed reaction on social media.

Translation: "Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq must appear on television to fully clarify his remark and take back this peculiar fatwa (religious decree)."

Some users agreed with the fatwa.

Translation: "He is right, the abaya is only [mandatory] here, but, in every other Islamic country, veiled women only wear loose clothing rather than an abaya."

Currently, the robe is mandatory for women in Saudi Arabia, and there is no indication that the custom might change.

Saudi Arabia has some of the world's tightest restrictions on women, despite ambitious government reforms aimed at boosting female employment.

Last month, women were allowed to watch football in stadiums in some cities, and a driving ban was lifted last year, but women are still unable to do many things without their male guardian's permission.

Some of the restrictions include applying for a passport, travelling abroad, enrolling in university and getting married, as well as opening a bank account, starting certain businesses and getting optional surgeries.

According to the law, they must also be accompanied by a guardian at all times when in public.

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