DUBAI • Saudi women need not wear the abaya - the loose-fitting, full-length robes symbolic of religious faith - a senior member of the top Muslim clerical body said, in another indication of the kingdom's efforts towards modernisation.
On his television programme, Mr Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars, said Muslim women should dress modestly, but this did not necessitate wearing the abaya.
"More than 90 per cent of pious Muslim women in the Muslim world do not wear abayas," Sheikh Mutlaq said on Friday. "So we should not force people to wear abayas."
While not necessarily signalling a change in the law, the statement is the first of its kind from a senior religious figure.
It follows the recent pattern of freedoms the kingdom has been witnessing with the ascent of young Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to power last year.
Only the government-appointed clerics associated with the Council of Senior Scholars are allowed to issue fatwas, or Islamic legal opinions. Their interpretations of Islamic law form the basis of Saudi Arabia's legal system.
Saudi women have started wearing more colourful abayas in recent years and open abayas over long skirts or jeans are also becoming more common in some parts of the country. The trend marks a major change in the last couple of years. In 2016, a Saudi woman was detained for removing her abaya on a main street in the capital Riyadh.
The kingdom has seen an expansion in women's rights recently, such as the decision passed to allow women to attend mixed public sporting events and the announcement that Saudi Arabia would grant them the right to drive.
These changes have been hailed as proof of a new progressive trend in the deeply conservative Muslim kingdom.
Despite the changes, the gender-segregated nation is still criticised for its continued constraints on women. Activists have blasted the country's guardianship system, which requires a male family member to grant permission for a woman to study abroad, travel and other activities.