“Girls? I have something to tell you,” Alia faltered, appearing to sway slightly on her high heels. She paused anxiously, and the next words came out in a rush. “I’ve gotten engaged!” There was a chorus of shrieks at the surprise announcement and Alia burst into tears, as did several of the other girls.
Ms. Othman’s mother smiled knowingly and left the room, leaving the girls to their moment of emotion. The group has been friends since they were of middle-school age, and Alia would be the first of them to marry.
A cellphone picture of Alia’s fiancé — a 25-year-old military man named Badr — was passed around, and the girls began pestering Alia for the details of her showfa. A showfa — literally, a “viewing” — usually occurs on the day that a Saudi girl is engaged.
A girl’s suitor, when he comes to ask her father for her hand in marriage, has the right to see her dressed without her abaya.
In some families, he may have a supervised conversation with her. Ideally, many Saudis say, her showfa will be the only time in a girl’s life that she is seen this way by a man outside her family.
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.
Most of the girls say their faith, in the strict interpretation of Islam espoused by the Wahhabi religious establishment here, runs very deep. They argue a bit among themselves about the details — whether it is acceptable to have men on your Facebook friend list, or whether a male first cousin should ever be able to see you without your face covered — and they peppered this reporter with questions about what the young Saudi men she had met were thinking about and talking about.
But they seem to regard the idea of having a conversation with a man before their showfas and subsequent engagements with very real horror. When they do talk about girls who chat with men online or who somehow find their own fiancés, these stories have something of the quality of urban legends about them: fuzzy in their particulars, told about friends of friends, or “someone in my sister’s class.”
Well-brought-up unmarried young 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.
Questions for the Fiancé
Later that evening, over fava bean stew, salad, and meat-filled pastries, Alia revealed that she was to be allowed to speak to her fiancé on the phone. Their first phone conversation was scheduled for the following day, she said, and she was so worried about what to say to Badr that she was compiling a list of questions.
“Ask him whether he likes his work,” one of her friends suggested. “Men are supposed to love talking about their work.”
“Ask him what kind of cellphone he has, and what kind of car,” suggested another. “That way you’ll be able to find out how he spends his money, whether he’s free with it or whether he’s stingy.”
It is considered embarrassing to admit to much strong feeling for a fiancé before the wedding and, before their engagements, any kind of contact with a man is out of the question. Even so, young women here sometimes resort to clandestine activities to chat with or to meet men, or simply to catch a rare glimpse into the men’s world.
Though it is as near to hand as the offices they pass each morning on the way to college, or the majlis, a traditional home reception room, where their fathers and brothers entertain friends, the men’s world is so remote from them that some Saudi girls resort to disguise in order to venture into it.
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.
Flirting by Phone
A woman can’t switch her phone’s Bluetooth feature on in a public place without receiving a barrage of the love poems and photos of flowers and small children which many Saudi men keep stored on their phones for purposes of flirtation. And last year, Al Arabiya television reported that some young Saudis have started buying special “electronic belts,” which use Bluetooth technology to discreetly beam the wearer’s cellphone number and e-mail address at passing members of the opposite sex.
Full Story: Love on Girls' Side of the Saudi Divide