National Geographic : 2016 Feb
118 national geographic • february 2016 Riyadh Jeddah Ar abianSea Ar abianSeaRedSeaRedSeaRedSea U.A .E. U.A .E. QATAR QATAR BAHRAIN BAHRAIN JORDAN JORDAN KUWAIT KUWAIT IRAQ IRAQ YEMEN YEMEN OMANOMAN SAUDI ARABIA AFRICAAFRICA proliferate in Jeddah, the less conservative port city in the west, but in Riyadh a nonblack abaya worn in public still invites scowls from strang- ers and possible rebuke by the street-patrolling religious police. The abaya Noof pulled out had gray plaid trim, with a flashy hint of red in the plaid—Noof had bought it in Jeddah. And pock- ets, very convenient, a cell phone pocket sewn onto the left sleeve. Noof shrugged the abaya over her skirt and blouse, the way one might don a raincoat. She snapped it down the middle, recasting her outer shape as an elongated black triangle. She wrapped her black tarha, the long Arabian head scarf, over her hair and under her chin and once more over her head. “ Where’s my purse?” Noof asked. Sami brought it to her. Then, just before crossing the threshold of their apartment building ’s front gate, Noof draped the remaining length of tarha completely over her face, which vanished, leav- ing visible only the skin of her ungloved hands. We climbed into their Toyota, Sami and Noof up front, and headed out into the evening to shop. The litany of “only nation in the world” rules in Saudi Arabia is familiar by now, partly because it provides such provocative news fod- der for disapproving outsiders: The only nation in the world that prohibits women from driving cars. The only nation that requires every adult female citizen to live under the supervision of a legally recognized male guardian, her fa- ther or husband or some other family member, who must grant formal permission before she can obtain a passport, complete certain legal matters, or travel abroad. The last nation, oth- er than Vatican City, to grant women the vote; the inaugural registration period was just six months ago, and women who lived more than walking distance from the sign-up sites needed men to chauffeur them there. In Saudi Arabia all restaurants serving both men and women have divided eating areas, one for “singles,” which means men, and one for “families,” which means women, plus children and any men in their parties who are close rela- tives. Men and women not tied by blood or mar- riage can pretend they are, but risk rousting by religious police; law and social dictates prohibit them from sitting together. Inside shopping mall food courts, where Middle East brands compete alongside McDonald’s and KFC, gen- der partitions doubling as menu signs divide each stall’s ordering counter. All sorts of practical matters, including the physical layout of buildings, are arranged in deference to mandates that Saudi women be segregated from men. When King Abdullah declared in 2011 that he would begin appoint- ing women to the royal advisory council, the NGM MAPS Saudi Arabia is the world’s most gender- segregated nation, but amid changes now under way, multiple generations of women are debating how to be truly modern and truly Saudi. SCALE VARIES IN THIS PERSPECTIVE.