Love on Girls’ Side of the Saudi Divide
The separation between the sexes in Saudi Arabia is so extreme that it is difficult to overstate. Saudi women may not drive, and they must wear black abayas and head coverings in public at all times. They are spirited around the city in cars with tinted windows, attend girls-only schools and university departments, and eat in special “family” sections of cafes and restaurants, which are carefully partitioned from the sections used by single male diners.
Special women-only gyms, women-only boutiques and travel agencies, even a women-only shopping mall, have been established in Riyadh in recent years to serve women who did not previously have access to such places unless they were chaperoned by a male relative. [...]
But they seem to regard the idea of having a conversation with a man before their showfas and subsequent engagements with very real horror. When they do talk about girls who chat with men online or who somehow find their own fiancés, these stories have something of the quality of urban legends about them: fuzzy in their particulars, told about friends of friends, or “someone in my sister’s class.”
Well-brought-up unmarried young women here are so isolated from boys and men that when they talk about them, it sometimes sounds as if they are discussing a different species.
For the techno-utopians among us who like to think that we can change the world simply by enabling people to communicate and connect via Bluetooth, texting, or Facebook, the article is an eye-opener.
The role of women in Saudi life since the introduction of those technologies sounds very much the same. But different:
There are reports of a recent spate of ugly confrontations between youths and the religious police, and of a supposed increase in same-sex love affairs among young people frustrated at the strict division between the genders.
And certainly, practices like “numbering” — where a group of young men in a car chase another car they believe to contain young women, and try to give the women their phone number via Bluetooth, or by holding a written number up to the window — have become a very visible part of Saudi urban life.
A woman can’t switch her phone’s Bluetooth feature on in a public place without receiving a barrage of the love poems and photos of flowers and small children which many Saudi men keep stored on their phones for purposes of flirtation. And last year, Al Arabiya television reported that some young Saudis have started buying special “electronic belts,” which use Bluetooth technology to discreetly beam the wearer’s cellphone number and e-mail address at passing members of the opposite sex.
Ms. Tukhaifi and Shaden know of girls in their college who have passionate friendships, possibly even love affairs, with other girls but they say that this, like the cross-dressing, is just a “game” born of frustration, something that will inevitably end when the girls in question become engaged. And they and their friends say that they find the experience of being chased by boys in cars to be frightening, and insist that they do not know any girl who has actually spoken to a boy who contacted her via Bluetooth.
I’m left recalling that while sodomy is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, sadly, as Nadya Labi wrote in the Atlantic last May, it’s “easier to be gay than straight” in a society where everyone, homosexual and otherwise, lives in the closet.
Yasser turned onto a side street, then braked suddenly. “Oh shit, it’s a checkpoint,” he said, inclining his head toward some traffic cops in brown uniforms. “Do you have your ID?” he asked me. He wasn’t worried about the gay-themed nature of his tour—he didn’t want to be caught alone with a woman. I rummaged through my purse, realizing that I’d left my passport in the hotel for safekeeping. Yasser looked behind him to see if he could reverse the car, but had no choice except to proceed. To his relief, the cops nodded us through. “God, they freaked me out,” Yasser said. As he resumed his narration, I recalled something he had told me earlier. “It’s a lot easier to be gay than straight here,” he had said. “If you go out with a girl, people will start to ask her questions. But if I have a date upstairs and my family is downstairs, they won’t even come up.”