It’s true, abayas are regulated and policed. And I don’t only mean the PVPV trolling the malls shouting at women to cover. For a Saudi woman that’s minor when compared to what we have to go through at schools and colleges. You can gauge the political stance of the administration of an educational facility by its abaya rules.
All schools that are run by the ministry of education, i.e. public schools, make female students and employees wear abayas tent style over their heads. Students in particular have to wear complete face covering that has no opening for the eyes. This is implemented by teachers, usually in pairs, that stand at the inside of the school entrance and not allow a student to go out unless she has the proper abaya and face cover on. This is also done at small women-only colleges and at Al Imam University, except instead of a rotation of gate duty between teachers, they actually employ a few women whose sole job is to police students to make sure that they wear a tent-style abaya with full face covering, wear long skirts and sleeves underneath and confiscate camera cell phones.
Many but not all private schools, colleges and the relatively more liberal King Saud University do not subject their female students to such scrutiny. As long as you wear a abaya and have a scarf on your head, you’re fine. And as long as you’re not actually pointing your cell phone camera and taking pictures, no one cares whether or not you have one. Unfortunately this flexibility is rare since the majority of Saudi women do attend public schools or at least the more conservative private schools.
I have had a lot of experience with this type of policing throughout my education and work career. Although I have not attended public schools as a student, I did work in a few as part of my practical training and also at the beginning of my teaching career. Of course I had to wear the tent style abaya too. But my way to get around it was to wear my regular shoulder abaya underneath and as soon as I was past the guards, I would shed the top abaya like it was on fire. I also had to do my share of gate duty and felt like a hypocrite. However it helped that I did happen across the principal at a restaurant with her face uncovered and wearing a fancy abaya. So many of us are enforcing rules that we don’t believe in.
What is underneath the abaya is also regulated. The first school I taught at the principal had an issue with my sneakers. She deemed them too western and ordered me to wear “regular” shoes such as loafers or high heels! At another school, at the first meeting the principal told me that she would let it go because it was my first day but my elbow long sleeves were against the rules. But nothing breaks the rules like a pair of pants on a Saudi woman. One time I was going for an interview at a university here in Riyadh. As I wasn’t a student and I had no intention of taking off my abaya for the interview, I went wearing pants. I knew the rules but since I was neither an employee nor a student there plus my abaya was the sort that did not have an opening in the front, I thought it would be ok. As soon as the female guard saw the cuffs of my pants under the abaya, she stopped me and told me that I could not enter the university until I bought a skirt from her and gave her my pants for safekeeping. She was serious! And she had a stack of 30 riyal black long skirts in a drawer. I did not want to miss the interview so I compromised (with a lot of back and forth arguing) by wearing one of her skirts on top of my pants with the abaya still on. Call me petty but as soon as I got past her I took the skirt off and stuffed into my purse.
My point is that Saudi women are conditioned from fourth grade and up, even as professionals themselves, to be subjected to this type of moral policing. Imagine what it’s like for women from ultra-conservative families. At home, school and work they are made to wear the abaya in such a way as to maximize the ideology that women are objects to be enjoyed by their guardians and covered from others. No wonder they impose it on themselves and on their daughters; it’s all they’ve known throughout their lives.