Much More than the Abaya

Ibe Imo, Contributor

Ibe Imo, an HBS Online participant, reports on the remarkable work of Baraa Luhaid to help promote women empowerment in Saudi Arabia through her cycling abayas.

Baraa Luhaid, who is only 28 and who participated in the Harvard Business School Online program “Accounting and Finance” this year, has spent six years looking for good trouble. She built her platform, designing cycling abayas for women. 

Luhaid’s wardrobe includes the plain black abaya–loose, body-covering dress women wear in public over their clothing to comply with decency laws. Until 2013, it was a mandatory clothing item for all Saudi Arabian women. The inspiration to design cycling abayas came from a determination to overcome the personal challenges she faced. In recent years, women’s rights have expanded in Saudi Arabia, with the country removing the ban on women driving and allowing women to travel without male guardianship.

“It is not so much the restrictions; it is that there is no logical rationale,” Luhaid said. Women are no longer required to wear abayas, “but culture and religion still prevail.” Her fondest memories from her childhood included hiking through the red dunes, bird calling with her father, and trading snacks with her male cousins to allow her to ride their bicycles. “I wasn’t allowed to have my bicycle, so I would negotiate by making them snacks.”

Growing up with three brothers, Luhaid understood how gender roles undermined fundamental human rights and women’s quality of life. Puberty for girls in Saudi Arabia comes with myriad nuances, like adolescents everywhere else in the world. Saudi Arabian girls experience a whirlwind of emotions and physiological changes. They also learn to adapt and live the rest of their lives, complying with Haya; this Islamic principle requires women to act modestly, with inhibition and restricted interaction with men. “It was all so sudden. I was now required to stay with more women and act with shyness and bashfulness.”

While in college, she found a part-time job in a women’s gym and became a certified physical fitness trainer. This job is unusual for a young Saudi woman; she did not encounter too much opposition but understood said and unsaid expectations. “My parents never saw my job at the gym as a real job; it was a side-gig.” Luhaid followed the path any respectable Saudi Arabian young person would. “I went to college, graduated, and found a job as a human resource officer at Riyadh Bank.” 

The bank provided Luahid with her first professional experience with a generous salary. Doing well on the job, she lived a good life, and her family and friends were proud of her. “I was not happy,” Luhaid said. The sacrifice of personal joys and fulfillment for career progression is not unique to women in Saudi Arabia. It is the norm for many professionals around the world. After working for two years, she resigned.

Luhaid got the opportunity to travel to China and Italy with her brother. She could cycle freely as an adult and without restrictions. She returned to Saudi Arabia and realized that it was impossible to cycle in a traditional abaya. Her women’s empowerment journey began after her brother invited her to help as a coach at his newly founded all-male cycling NGO. While helping him, an idea to design modest cycling gear was born.

Societal emphasis on conforming clothing is one of the many ways women’s options are limited. “The cycling abaya is a concept to uplift women. It is so much more than the abaya,” she said. Cautious but supportive, her family helped cradle her dream to fruition. Luhaid had already quit her banking job at this time and earned a smaller salary as a fitness coach at a sports management company.

Having limited resources, she remembered her mother used to be a tailor. “My mother tailored the first designs.” At times, Luhaid wondered if her mother’s desire to help was to ensure designs conforming with modesty. It may have been, but her mother’s help was just enough to kindle the flame.

 As expected, in a religious and patriarchal society, she was going against the culture and was seen as a bad influence on young women. Shaming did not only come from men and law enforcement. It also came from women. “You look so funny. If I see you wearing this, I would put you on Snapchat and make you a meme,” a close female friend said. It is one thing to face mockery and opposition from strangers but another thing when it comes from those you love and trust. “I cannot express how I felt,” Luhaid said. She launched a female-focused cycling organization. This new platform provided a canvass to promote her abaya-themed cycling gear.

Luahid’s platform created a path to work at the Saudi Cycling Federation (SCF). While at SCF, she also worked on initiatives with the Olympics Committee to expand women’s cycling access. During this time, she met Her Royal Highness, Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud. At the time, Her Royal Highness Bandar Al Saud served as the Deputy of Planning and Development at Saudi General Sports Authority’s (GSA). Luhaid got an opportunity to present her designs. “You’re brave and doing such amazing work to inspire Saudi women,” Princess Al Saud said. This affirmation meant the whole world. Princess Al Saud endorsed her abaya-themed cycling gear, and Luhaid’s designs won in the 2017 Riyadh SportsWear Festival. Today, Luhaid’s brand is known as the first modest sportswear brand in Saudi Arabia.

Policing of Muslim women’s clothing does not stop within the Persian Gulf. In 2010, by a vote of 335–1, the National Assembly of France passed a bill to ban face-coverings and headgear, including burqas. Similar bans exist in Quebec, Austria, Belgium, and Germany. While these bans may be intended to ensure national security and foster assimilation, they have similar themes of stereotyping and generalization. “When I first traveled, I used to wear hijabs; people were so weird to me; they did not treat me like they treated other women.” Luhaid stopped wearing abayas or hijabs whenever she traveled abroad.

In the United States, she appreciated the quality of life from being able to do simple things and the ability to speak freely. Luhaid’s second visit coincided with the most massive protest in American History; African Americans and allies were protesting the killing of George Floyd. She identified with this very different but familiar form of injustice. Recounting her time in Boston, she said, “I did not get a chance to protest, but I participated in the blackout Tuesday social media campaign.” In an emotional tone, she said, “Speaking out is so powerful that there will be no change if people do not speak up.” 

“Designing abayas for cycling is my first move to change the world.” Compared to the scenario in other cultures and countries, the restriction of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia may seem extreme, but Luhaid hopes to spread her message of gender equality worldwide. “When I plead for women’s cycling, I am pleading for women’s empowerment around the world.” It is so much more than the abaya.

Ibe Imo, who participated in the HBS Online program “Disruptive Strategy” in 2017, is an author whose writing has been published at top multinational professional services firms. He is also a graduate student majoring in journalism at Harvard Extension School. His storytelling aims to help people see the world as it is, highlighting various dimensions of the human experience and the emotions that unite people. He enjoys outdoor activities, including kayaking and trail cycling along the Charles River. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.