Saudi Girls and the Boys

Separate, but accepting

Saudi youth obey demands of conservative Muslim society

Sat. May 17 – 7:17 AM

THE DANCE PARTY in Atheer Jassem al-Othman’s living room was in full swing. The guests — about two dozen girls in their late teens — had arrived, and Othman and her mother were passing around cups of sweet tea and dishes of dates.

About half the girls were swaying and gyrating, without the slightest self-consciousness, among overstuffed sofas, heavy draperies, tables larded with figurines and ornately-covered tissue boxes. Their head-to-toe abayas were balled up and tossed onto chairs.

Suddenly, the music stopped, and an 18-year-old named Alia came forward. “Girls, I have something to tell you,” Alia faltered, appearing to sway slightly on her high heels. She paused anxiously, and the next words came out in a rush. “I’ve gotten engaged!” There was a chorus of shrieks at the surprise announcement and Alia burst into tears, as did several of the other girls.

Othman’s mother smiled knowingly and left the room, leaving the girls to their moment of emotion. The group has been friends since they were of middle-school age, and Alia would be the first of them to marry.

A cellphone picture of Alia’s fiance — a 25-year-old military man named Badr — was passed around, and the girls began pestering Alia for the details of her showfa. A showfa — literally, a “viewing” — usually occurs on the day that a Saudi girl becomes engaged. When a girl’s suitor comes to ask her father for her hand in marriage, he has the right to see her dressed without her abaya.

In some families, he may have a supervised conversation with her. Ideally, many Saudis say, her showfa will be the only time in a girl’s life that she is seen this way by a man outside her family.

The separation between the sexes in Saudi Arabia is so extreme 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 in cars with tinted windows, attend girls-only schools and university departments and eat in special “family” sections of cafes and restaurants, which are partitioned from the sections used by single male diners.

Special women-only gyms, even a women-only shopping mall, have been established to serve women who did not previously have access to such places unless chaperoned by male relatives.

Playful as they are, girls like Othman and her friends are well aware of the limits that their conservative society places on their behaviour. And for the most part, they say that they do not seriously question those limits.

Most of the girls say that their faith, in the strict interpretation of Islam espoused by the Wahhabi religious establishment here, runs very deep. They argue a bit among themselves about the details — whether it is acceptable to have men on your Facebook friend list, or whether a male first cousin should be able to see you without your face covered — and they peppered this reporter with questions about what the young Saudi men she had met were thinking about and talking about.

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 fiances, 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.

Later that evening, Alia revealed she would be allowed to speak to her fiance on the phone. Their first phone conversation was scheduled for the following day, she said, and she was so worried about what to say to Badr that she was compiling a list of questions.

“Ask him whether he likes his work,” a friend suggested. “Men are supposed to love talking about their work.”

“Ask him what kind of cellphone he has, and what kind of car,” said another. “That way, you’ll be able to find out how he spends his money, whether he’s free with it or whether he’s stingy.”

Alia nodded earnestly and took notes. She had been so racked with nerves during her showfa that she she could hardly remember a thing her fiance had said. She was determined to learn a bit more about him this time.

According to about 30 Saudi girls and women between ages 15 and 25, interviewed recently, it is becoming more socially acceptable for young engaged women to speak to their fiances on the phone, though more conservative families still forbid it.

It is considered embarrassing to admit to much strong feeling for a fiance before the wedding and, before their engagements, any kind of contact with a man is out of the question. Even so, young women here sometimes resort to clandestine activities to chat with or to meet men, or simply to catch a rare glimpse into the men’s world.

Although it’s as near to hand as the offices they pass each morning on the way to college, or the majlis, a traditional home reception room where their fathers and brothers entertain friends, the men’s world is so remote that some Saudi girls resort to disguise in order to venture into it.

At Prince Sultan University, where Atheer Jassem al-Othman, 18, is a first-year law student, a pair of second-year students recently spent a mid-morning break showing off photographs of themselves dressed as boys.

In the pictures, the girls wore thobes, ankle-length garments traditionally worn by Saudi men, and had covered their hair with male headdresses called shmaghs. One girl had used an eyeliner pencil to give herself a gray mist along her jaw line. On the screens of the girls’ cell phones, the photos evoked exclamations of congratulation as they were passed around.

Tukhaifi and Shaden know of girls in 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 frightening, and insist that they do not know any girl who has actually spoken to a boy who contacted her via Bluetooth.

“If your family found out you were talking to a man online, that’s not quite as bad as talking to him on the phone,” Tukhaifi explained. “With the phone, everyone can agree that is forbidden, because Islam forbids a stranger to hear your voice. Online, he only sees your writing, so that’s slightly more open to interpretation.

“One test is that if you’re ashamed to tell your family something, then you know it’s wrong,” Tukhaifi continued. “For a while, I had Facebook friends who were boys — I didn’t e-mail with them or anything, but they asked me to “friend” them and so I did. But then I thought about my family and I took them off the list.”


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