RIYADH, Saudi Arabia —
Navigating daily life in this sprawling metropolis of 7 million people requires a complicated set of calculations for the 50 percent of the population that is female. Will a man be available to drive me to this or that appointment? How will the children get to school? Which door should I use to enter this building? Which line should I join to order my coffee in the mall?
Sometimes, in the course of a day, women will pull on and off their face coverings, headscarves and black-robe abayas a dozen times or more, in a variety of combinations, depending on whether men are present and how well they know them. The penalty for getting it wrong can include social ostracization, humiliation for the woman and her family, unwelcome harassment by men and, until recently, detention and imprisonment.
In small but significant ways, the daily reckonings are becoming easier and the costs of failure are falling. The social reforms unleashed by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are bringing changes to many aspects of life in the conservative kingdom, but none stand to benefit more than women, whose treatment has set Saudi Arabia apart from the rest of the world for decades.
Glimpses of hair are starting to appear beneath headscarves, the lines segregating men from women are beginning to blur, and the government is slowly retreating from its once vigorous intrusion into women’s lives. On June 24, they will be allowed to drive, the most symbolic and practically important of the changes so far.
Political freedoms are definitely not included. The arrest last month of 17 activists, including seven of the most prominent women who had campaigned for the right to drive, sent a clear signal to all Saudis that only the government can bestow freedoms – and the government can take them away. Eight of those detained have since been freed, but nine remain behind bars, including three of the female driving activists.
The arrests probably had less to do with the specific demands the women were making than that they were making demands at all, said Hala al-Dosari, a Saudi activist who has supported the driving campaign and is at Harvard University. Male clerics, bloggers and human rights campaigners critical of the government also have been detained but simply received less publicity, she said.
Rather, the new Saudi Arabia appears to be heading toward an ever-harsher form of authoritarianism, even as the government promotes the social reforms that are starting to release women from the most rigidly enforced gender discrimination in the world. Future campaigns for more meaningful reforms to women’s lives, such as an end to the widely hated guardianship law requiring all women to seek the permission of a male relative before traveling, working or even visiting a cafe, will be deterred, Dosari said.
“The only reforms that are going to happen are those identified by the state,” she said. “Mohammed Bin Salman wants to be the arbiter. He wants to decide the reforms and when they happen.”
There is also, however, no sign that the reforms permitted so far are going to be turned back. Saudi newspapers continue to carry breathless reports about the first Saudi woman to accomplish this or that activity that supposedly illustrates the leaps being made toward greater equality — the first Saudi female tour guide, the first Saudi female rock-climbing instructor, the first female Saudi trade inspection team, the first Saudi female blues singer.
For most ordinary women, the changes are more mundane — and still largely dependent on what the men in their lives decree. In the western coastal province of Jiddah, which has long been more liberal than the desert capital of Riyadh, some women have discarded their headscarves altogether, and some cafes and restaurants have abolished the separate sections for families and single men that are designed to ensure that women don’t encounter men they don’t know.
But it is in Riyadh, where conservative tribal traditions often trump the state, that the real test of the liberalization will come. Here, restaurants and cafes are still segregated, and the overwhelming majority of women still wear the face covers known as niqabs, as well as headscarves and abayas, despite statements by the crown prince that they are no longer compulsory.
In interviews, dozens of Saudi women from all segments of society nonetheless said the reforms are changing their lives in ways they had once thought impossible. They are entering careers, starting businesses and, in one of the least noticed but most appreciated of the reforms, seeking and securing divorces and child-support payments.
Some asked that they not be identified because they fear repercussions from the state. Others said they were happy to speak out because they embrace the changes and believe Mohammed, their crown prince, has their interests at heart.
“It is as if we are finally being allowed to breathe,” said Walla Jarallah, 32, who recently returned from two years studying photography in New York and found herself at once chafing at the restrictions that remain and stunned by the transformation that had occurred.
The interviews with the women also raised many questions that it is still too early to answer. Will the changes endure? Will they go far enough to make a real difference? Or are they perhaps going too far for this conservative society, risking a backlash that could unwind the clock?
Throughout the day and late into the evening, a steady stream of men driving cars, Ubers and taxis drops off black-clad women outside an innocuous-looking door marked with the words: “men and children not allowed.” Once inside, the women rip off their face-coverings, unwind their headscarves and after ordering one of the wide range of coffees on offer at the Kanakah cafe, sit down to chat with friends or work on their laptops.
The cafe is one of a number of woman-owned, women-run and women-only cafes that have sprung up in Riyadh to cater to a burgeoning clientele of professional women who want to relax without the societal pressures that come when men are present.
Many machinations go into the running of a woman-only cafe in Saudi Arabia. Supplies such as coffee beans and flour for the pies and brownies that are freshly baked every day are dropped off by men in a foyer between the outer door and an inner door. Once the men have finished unloading, the female staff picks up the deliveries and hauls them into the kitchen, thereby avoiding forbidden contact with strangers of the opposite sex.
When things go wrong and men such as plumbers or electricians must be summoned, the cafe closes so that the female clientele are not put into uncomfortable proximity with men, staff members said.
These days, the pressures to dress conservatively and avoid male company come more from social traditions than government enforcement, said Najwa, a 20-year-old medical student who had come to the cafe to meet a group of friends.
“Society is difficult about that. I would be the center of attention if I didn’t wear abaya,” said Najwa, who dreams of being allowed to wear what she chooses.
“I don’t want to be the first one to do it. If someone else does it I’ll do it. So it is a matter of seeing who goes first,” added her friend Hessa, 28, who is a wedding photographer and isn’t sure whether she wants to dress differently.
In any case, the dress code is less of a priority than the jobs that are opening up and the opportunity to drive, the women agreed. Abayas are a comfortable part of the Saudi tradition, “and you can wear pajamas underneath,” said Sarah, 28, a social worker. Saudi men also cover their hair, with tribal headscarves, and wear traditional long, white robes that are by no means compulsory but are still chosen by the overwhelming majority of men.
The women argued about how far they want the changes to go. “I want us to be like America,” Najwa said.
“Not like America,” Sarah quickly interjected. “We see on the TV that many American women are subjected to sexual harassment.”
A fear of men
Fear of harassment pervades almost every aspect of a woman’s life and was cited in multiple interviews as the biggest deterrent to participating in the changes being offered by the state. Even the most conservative women said they welcomed the right to drive — but few said they were willing to be among the first to take to the road, in case they were victimized or harassed by men.
“They will follow you. They will ask you to take their number. They will be offended when you say no. Maybe they will laugh at you,” Hessa explained.
A law introduced last month stipulates fines and up to five years in jail for all kinds of harassment.
But women themselves, sheltered by their families for decades, need to adjust to the new freedoms, said a woman activist in Riyadh who declined to be identified given the risks confronting women perceived to be making demands.
“We’ve had 40 to 50 years of brainwashing by the TVs and the mosques. If we drive, women will have all these monster beasts jumping on them. We’ve been made to fear every man in the world,” she said. “But men are not like that. Definitely you have a percentage that are bad guys, but they’re a minority. It’s a matter of removing the myths around the gender relationship.”
Mixed company rare
Mixed cafes are still too risqué for Riyadh. The laws don’t permit them, and women aren’t really sure they want them.
Salwa al-Dharrab opened her all-women’s cafe, Nabt Fenjan, a year ago and has since tried to secure permission to designate the property as a family venue, meaning that male relatives of female customers would be allowed. But she has been refused a license on the grounds that Riyadh has a law banning women from serving men in any establishment, and Dharrab is determined to employ women as her staff.
On the anniversary of the cafe’s opening last month, she closed for business and held a private party to which men were invited. In a rare mixed gathering in Riyadh, a half-dozen or so men, most of them brothers of the female clientele, sipped coffee alongside several dozen female guests. Some of the women pulled on headscarves and some covered their faces because of the presence of men.
But such instances of mixed company remain rare, and some attempts to keep pace with the reforms have backfired. The Kingdom Mall, one of the city’s glitzier shopping centers, was for many years renowned for its “Ladies Kingdom,” the top floor of the mall that was reserved for women only. Earlier this year, the mall changed its rules to allow men and women to move throughout the mall freely.
Business plunged. Women who had once sought out the space as a place where they could mingle freely with their female friends stopped coming. Female store assistants who used to take off their abayas and headscarves began covering themselves again after men were allowed onto the floor.
“They wanted sales to go up, but it did the opposite. No one even comes to the cafes anymore,” said Iman, 28, who works in a store selling some of the latest fashion abayas, trimmed with colors. The biggest concern is the single men who prowl the mall seeking to pick up women, she said.
She welcomes the changes that are taking place but worries about the pace. “It’s going too fast,” she said. “Society would accept it more if it goes gradually.”
Conservative families “are used to one thing,” she continued. “If you have control over how they lead their lives and suddenly you open the door and tell them they can go out, it’s going to be a shock.
“It’s sudden and new and a lot of the tribal families don’t accept it,” she said. “The tribes have their own codes and the government has its own laws, and then there’s the religion of Islam, which has its own laws.”
Debate over liberalization
Untangling what is decreed by Islam, what represents tribal tradition, and how far the government aims to go with its push toward liberalization is at the center of the fierce debates raging within Saudi society about the changes. Underpinning the concerns among men and women alike is the fear that bringing women into the workplace, allowing them to drive and relaxing the dress codes, will lead to promiscuity and a breakdown of the moral code.
For all their second-class status, women and their role stand at the center of the identity of the Saudi state, putting them on the front line of Mohammed’s reform agenda.
The biggest change in most women’s lives came two years ago, when the government stripped the powers of arrest from the vice and virtue police, known as the Hai’a. These religious police, who once energetically enforced religious and tribal codes with the authority to imprison violators, continue to patrol. They continue to urge women to cover their hair more completely, and they continue to challenge men and women who appear publicly together on whether they are related.
But, shorn of their powers, their admonitions lack teeth, and women now shrug them off.
With the guardianship law still intact, however, the degree to which a woman may benefit from the liberalization depends largely on her family’s convictions, and above all on the male relatives who still wield extraordinary power over women’s lives.
Women who come from liberal families, often those who are wealthier, better educated and well traveled, can live almost as freely as many women in some other Arab countries. Dating, discreetly, has been common for years among the liberal elites, and with the religious police now defanged, men and women can meet for trysts — the woman’s face concealed — in the family sections of many of Riyadh’s upscale cafes.
Dating and men are the least concern for Nesreen, 28, who works from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. as an auditor at a company, then from 6 to 11 p.m. at the fashion boutique she opened last year with her savings from her job. Her dream is to develop her own fashion brand and earn enough to give up her day job.
“I’m educated, I’m employed, I have my own business, I pay my own bills. I’m not missing out on anything,” she said. “Marriage is not my priority.”
Women whose families don’t accept the changes are as constrained as ever, said Wijdan, 23, as she sipped a latte in the family section of a Starbucks, where single men and women are still scrupulously segregated. Her father won’t allow her even to go to a cafe in the daytime, and she had begged the family’s driver not to tell him that she had stopped off for a coffee with a friend after finishing class at the university.
With men still the ultimate arbiters of what a woman may and may not do, the biggest beneficiaries of the new freedoms may be those who have the most urgent reasons to break free. Many of the most publicized changes primarily affect the elites, who don’t mind their daughters becoming rock-climbing instructors or blues singers.
With less fanfare, Riyadh’s family affairs court has been swamped by women seeking divorces and child-support payments from exes since a law in March allowing women to automatically secure custody of their children. Other legislation over the past three years has given women the right to initiate divorce and to claim child support. A 2016 law granted divorcées and widows the right to secure family identity cards, making them the head of their own household and freeing them from the constraints of the guardianship law.
The biggest beneficiaries are the poorest of Saudi women, whose parents can’t support them when their marriages break down.
During visits to the court over two days last month, dozens of women milled around, entering the building through the separate door reserved for women and waiting in segregated rooms for their cases to be heard. The women far outnumbered the men waiting in their own rooms and most cited physical abuse as the reason for the breakdown of their marriages.
The judges all are men, but the women all expressed delight at how easy the process was.
“Everything is easier for the woman now,” said Sarah, 41, who was divorced by her husband three years ago and is seeking support for their six children. “The judges seem to be more on the woman’s side these days.”
“It’s very, very easy,” said Majouda, 41, who has spent 17 years married to an abusive husband and is nearing the final stages of her divorce. “The judge told me, ‘No one can force you to live with a man you don’t want to live with.’ ”
For other women feeling trapped by their conservative families, marriage offers a chance of escape. “I want to drive, but my family won’t let me,” said Rahaf, 18, who works in one of the little shops selling the cheap, black abayas that most women still wear at the Souq al-Tayeb, Riyadh’s biggest market, where most conservative women go to shop. “We have a man of the family, and the man is the one who drives.”
Most of the abayas on sale are entirely black. But some have gray or dark-colored trim, the latest fashion that points to both the innovation of the changing times and its limits. A splash of muted color expresses a daring willingness to go beyond the existing constraints, but not so far as to stand out. “We don’t want to attract attention,” Rahaf said.
“Nothing will change for me,” she continued. “At least until I am married. All of the mothers say, ‘Wait. When you are married it will be up to your husband.’ ”