Living in Saudi Arabia, it’s not an easy thing to just go and spend some time with your friends. While no mission impossible, there are many restrictions to remind you every single day about where you live. There are several rules to follow in order not to get in trouble or look like a complete idiot in public.
The single versus the family
According to Saudi laws, women and men who are not from the same family are not allowed to mix in public places. These restrictions are taken to an extreme and the rules of the country are not easily comprehended, even to someone who has lived there all their life. Almost all public places are divided into single sections and family sections. In this case, ‘single’ does not refer to the status of your love life, and that you can meet the single people in the city in this section. No, single sections are made only for men who go out together without women in their company. As for the family sections; as the name implies, they are meant for families, but is actually the place where any group that includes women would be seated. Also, in public places, there are usually no single sections for women. It is mostly private places like beauty salons and shops that provide spaces exclusively for women.
There are even some malls that are exclusively reserved for ‘families’, and therefore are out of bounds for single men. Same goes for several restaurants on weekends. The rule is there for several reasons. After authorities discovered that malls were the perfect places for single young people to meet, they decided to stop such immoral activities through separating the sexes. However, many men manage to get past the security guards and enter the malls anyway. By getting a group of women they don’t know to play along, they claim to come from the same family. And, even though the guards may not be that gullible, they generally play along and let them in anyways.
The Saudi authorities also have other means for enforcing the separation between genders. The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vices for example, tries to ensure that everyone acts according to morality. The mutaween, or religious police, have their own ways of dealing with this. Some of their favorite pastimes has been through the years to cut young men’s ponytails (some of which are actually thankful for that measure); to give long sermons about morality whenever seeing men with gold around their necks, talking to women or displaying other ‘immoral’ behavior (‘immoral’ in this case can mean just about anything, depending on the current political mood); and, of course, to force people to the mosque.
The mutaween were and still are feared by non-veiled women. Routinely, they yell at them and require them to wear the veil. These police are also responsible for making sure that people who are not related don’t mix. It is quite easy to spot the mutaween in public. Their dress, called “towb” in Arabic, is shorter than the traditional ones, they have long beards, and are nowadays followed around by policemen to protect them. Due to more frequent attacks against them by civilians, the authorities have decided to reinforce their protection. But, because of their controversial methods and often dubious backgrounds (some are ex-convicts who became ‘born-again Muslims’), Saudis see less of them these days.
Playing with the rules
Yes, there are many rules organizing everyday life in the country, but many Saudis find ways to circumvent them. Some simply don’t care about the laws saying that you can’t meet with friends, and do it anyway. Sure, it’s quite different from the ‘normal’ way of hanging out. Women, for instance, must always wear their abayas, long black cloths that hide their clothes. Authorities do their best to keep relations between men and women reduced to a minimum. What has been used by restaurants is a sort of dark wooden screen protecting the privacy of the guests, for those who asked for it,. This way, women are able to take off the niqabs covering their faces and eat more easily. However, some people also use these screens for another kind of privacy. They are very useful when you want to do things without being stared at. For young unmarried couples, behind these screens they can kiss or hold hands almost without worries.
The excess of restrictions in Saudi society has in many ways lead to other extreme behaviors. Many young Saudis, guys in particular, have a skewed view of reality. There are those who try with all means possible to meet girls; everything from chasing cars in order to capture female attention, to sticking phone numbers on to girls’ cars, and crowding in front of family sections at trendy cafés. One recent idea of these guys is to write their Blackberry pins on the windows of their cars, in order for girls to contact them. These situations might be funny in some cases, but they quickly make girls feel annoyed and objectified.
So, with some guts and creativity, there are many ways for Saudis to escape their society’s strict regulations. Of course, there is always the risk of getting in trouble if you get caught doing it. But as a rule of thumb, it’s much easier to live more freely in the private sphere than the public one. You just need to know where to go, with whom, and to which limits you can push things.