Wednesday, September 10, 2008


I'm sure you all know that Riyadh is a very conservative city. One of the foreign concepts that is a little peculiar and difficult to grasp is the segregation between single men and women. Restaurants all have a means of creating a physical divide between the sexes. There is often some combination of sections for single men, single women, and families. For example, here's a picture of us entering the "family section" of Starbucks after being refused entry to the "singles" section. And in my prior blog about IKEA, you can see a picture of a typical family section in a restaurant.

I find this whole concept to be totally confusing, because in eating establishments and banks (for example), the segregation is present, but in grocery stores, malls, and shopping areas, it's impossible to enforce. So I often forget about the whole concept unless I'm confronted with a panicked employee when I go into the wrong sections. For instance, I was shopping in a souk the other day and got extremely thirsty. I spotted a takeout restaurant with an orange juice fountain and hurried into the shop only to be horribly shocked by half a dozen men yelling at me to leave. I was surprised (and a little insulted) by the commotion and accidentally backed into a man carrying a coffee who spilled it in a neat line down the entire front of his white thobe. After apologizing profusely, I realized that they had all been pointing to a window on the outside of the shop that women were supposed to order through.

The Saudi authorities take the whole thing seriously and take measures to enforce it that would seem bizarre in Canada. The latest rule that has been passed was a ban on the sale of dogs and cats, and on walking them in public, lest the younger generation use it as an excuse to get to know each other. No joke!!

My confusion has been exacerbated by reading the book "Girls of Riyadh" by Rajaa Alsanea. The book was published in 2005 and banned here when it first came out. It documents the story of 4 upper crust Saudi women looking for love. In the book, single men and women mingle and exchange phone numbers at malls, at certain schools, on the road (!)... and they have dates in restaurants and cafes, and even at each other's houses in certain situations. I suppose they pretend they are married when they go on such dates and hope they don't get caught. Much of the torrid love affairs are spent on the phone and through text messaging with little in-person contact, but from what the book says, it seems young lovers end up meeting each other one way or another, regardless of all the rules that have been imposed on the population. It is pretty clear from the novel that there are many young men and women who hope to meet their life partners on their own and do a form of dating before getting their families involved in a marriage, though the traditional arranged marriage is more common.

Here is a very interesting posting on how youth are using bluetooth to flirt with each other:

...and I thought it was hard to meet people in Toronto!!

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