Saudi police have released a woman they detained for wearing “immodest clothes” in a viral video.
The footage shows a woman, known only as a model named Khulood, wearing a mini skirt and a crop top as she walked through an empty historic fort.
The video was first posted to Snapchat and then reposted on Twitter. Many Saudis who viewed the clip called on police to arrest the woman for breaking Saudi Arabia’s strict modesty laws.
Women in the kingdom must cover their hair and wear an abaya—a loose-fitting, robe-like dress.
Women’s rights in Saudi Arabia lag behind most of the world. While King Abdullah finally allowed women to vote in 2015, they still cannot drive, and they need a male guardian’s permission to travel, marry, divorce, open a bank account, or enroll in college.
Though recent decades have brought some progress, there is still a very conservative attitude towards women’s liberation. That attitude was abundantly clear when the video of Khulood appeared on Twitter.
Commenters were upset both by the choice of clothing and the fact that it broke Saudi law. A hashtag that translates to “the trial of Khulood the model is a must” trended during the uproar.
Others pointed out that the laws are harsher on Saudi women than foreigners.
A few months before the incident, President Trump visited Riyadh with First Lady Melania and his daughter Ivanka. Neither of the women wore headscarves, and there was little indignation about it among Saudis.
British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel refrained from wearing headscarves on their official visits. Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Condoleeza Rice all chose not to wear headscarves.
Saudi women’s rights activist Fatima al-Issa tweeted the video along with the message, “If she were Western, they would have praised her waist and her enchanting eyes, but because she’s Saudi they call for her to be tried!”
The religious police of Saudi Arabia have influence but no authority.
After the video gained popularity, The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, or Hai’a, claimed to be investigating the video. In the past, this government agency wielded the power to arrest citizens for violating dress codes or socializing with the opposite sex. However, in 2016, the Saudi government greatly reduced the agency’s power.
It is unclear if the Hai’a reported Khulood to the police or if the police pursued the case on their own. Either way, the police detained Khulood in Riyadh shortly after the video went viral.
Police have since released Khulood without charge.
Khulood is now free and prosecutors have closed the case. Her detention was likely a response to the social media outcry over the woman’s outfit.
While many criticized Khulood for not following the law, they admitted that this was a victimless crime. Saudi writer Waheed al-Ghamdi tweeted, “I am simply questioning the lack of priorities regarding anger and alarm expressed over human rights violations and oppression versus the harmless personal choices of others.”
Saudi women face a long road to equality. The government occasionally makes small concessions—last week it announced that girls can now play sports in school. Unfortunately, Khulood’s predicament shows just how long of a road Saudi women have ahead of them to equal treatment.