Well-brought-up unmarried young Saudi 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.
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.
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 between classes showing off photographs of themselves dressed as boys.
In the pictures, the girls wore thobes, the ankle-length white garments traditionally worn by Saudi men, and had covered their hair with the male headdresses called shmaghs. One of the girls had used an eyeliner pencil to give herself a grayish, stubble-like mist along her jaw line. Displayed on the screens of the two girls’ cellphones, the photographs evoked little exclamations of congratulation as they were passed around.
- “A lot of girls do it,” said an 18-year-old named Sara al-Tukhaifi who explained that a girl and her friends might cross-dress, sneaking thobes out of a brother’s closet, then challenge each other to enter the Saudi male sphere in various ways, by walking nonchalantly up to the men-only counter in a McDonalds, say, or even by driving.
- “It’s just a game,” Ms. Tukhaifi said, although detention by the religious police is always a possibility. “I haven’t done it myself, but those two are really good at it. They went into a store and pretended to be looking at another girl — they even got her to turn her face away.”
- Grinning, Ms. Tukhaifi mimicked the gesture, pressing her face into the corner of her hijab with exaggerated pretend modesty while her classmate Shaden giggled. Saudi newspapers often lament the rise of rebellious behavior among young Saudis. 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. ISLAM-WATCH.ORG