You can have my private number
weekend I was shopping in one of the new malls when I noticed a small
group of teenaged lads being escorted out by a security guard and a
couple of Muttawa, who are the Representatives from the Council
for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, aka the
Religious Police. I wondered what the boys had been up to. Perhaps the
usual teenage antics of fighting, petty theft, one too many cans of
lager, running amok amid the shoppers? No, none of that. Not here. They
had been doing nothing more than visiting the food court on the second
floor for a McDonalds, just like any other teenagers on a weekend. Except
that on weekends single men are not allowed into shopping malls.
Another strange but true story from Saudi Arabia.
Just about everything is done to prevent males and females coming into
contact with each other. Relationships between men and women outside
marriage are strictly haram (forbidden). Dating is forbidden. An absolute
no-no. If a male so much as approaches a woman he could be arrested.
Arranged marriages are still on the agenda, and even for the wedding
reception the bride and groom have separate parties, women at one, men
at the other, and never the twain shall meet.
This country does all it can to preserve the traditions and the traditional
way of life set out by the prophet Mohammed about 1400 years ago. Saudi
Arabia is stuck in a time warp. And thats the problem arising
here with the younger generation. Traditions are telling them one thing,
the western world is showing them another. And they want some of it.
They want to be able to play music at top volume, hang out together,
dance, party and laugh out loud.
Many Arab kids are sent to schools and universities in the USA and Europe.
Their families, having benefited well from the oil boom which turned
this country into a land of wealth, can easily afford to send them overseas
to get a good education. They experience a whole new, and free, world
out there. A world with cinemas, theatres, discos, clubs and bars, and
mixed schools. A world where men and women can mix freely, work together,
talk together, date, whatever. So when these kids come back to Saudi
they are totally mixed up. Torn between two cultures, they wear both
traditional and western clothes together. Under the black abaya it is
not so obvious that the young girls are wearing strappy sundresses and
platform shoes, but the young men are often seen with the long white
robe (thobe) and a baseball cap instead of the chequered scarf headdress.
They are frustrated at the restrictions, and they are bored. They watch
satellite TV, surf the internet and spend hours on the phone. What else
to do? Even those who have not been out of the country can access the
outside world through satellite TV and Internet. And this has created
a society filled with young people caught between two powerful forces,
Islamic Fundamentalism and Western culture.
So what do the young men and women do about meeting each other? The
shopping malls and supermarkets provide hope. They are watched of course,
by the ever present Muttawa. But if it means the chance of a brief flirtation,
its worth the risk. Family values still hold strong, and if they
are caught they get a sharp telling off from the Muttawa whilst being
escorted home, parents informed and then comes the lecture on the shame
they have brought to the family name. But for many, taking the risk
of a few minutes of fun is better than sitting at home waiting for the
day when their arranged marriage takes place.
The solution to relieving the boredom is to have a mobile phone. A line
to (temporary) freedom. Dont leave home without one. And now I
know why every youngster in Riyadh has a phone glued to their ear.
Groups of young Saudi women are in the mall at weekends. They are wearing
the traditional abaya, and have their faces veiled, as all Saudi females
are obliged to do on reaching puberty. After then the only male to see
her face will be her Mahram, her husband, her father, brother or son.
Like teenage girls from any other part of the world, they are interested
in fashion, music, make-up and, most of all, boys. They know that the
shopping mall provides the only chance, the only place where there is
any possibility of making contact with the opposite sex. No chance at
a cinema, theatre or disco, as these do not exist. Not at the (juice)
bar or café because males and females are segregated. So they
all carry a mobile phone.
Meanwhile young men bribe the security guards to let them into the malls
at weekends. They cannot approach the girls, the Muttawa are always
on the look out. Instead they stand in small groups of 2 or 3, against
the rails, surveying the upper and lower floors of the mall. They spot
a group of girls standing near the music shop on the upper floor, and
try to make eye contact with a couple of them. One or two of the boys
are brave enough to ride the escalator up one floor, passing close by
the girls, on the pretence of going into the nearby shop. They cannot
stop and speak, but as they pass, they surreptitiously toss their phone
numbers at the girls in the hope that none of this has been spotted
by the Muttawa. They move on and hope later they will receive a phone
call, which in turn could result in more calls, much flirtation and
an eventual secret liaison. Chances are their phone will ring soon.
Its crazy. Its Saudi.