There is a distinct difference between the way I feel about going to malls and restaurants here in Riyadh than the way my younger sisters feel about it. There is only a 5 year difference between us but I find that my generation and my elder sisters generations are more weary of going out.
You may be asking yourself why this weariness? I will tell you why… It’s because of the ‘Hay’a’. The so-called “religious police” or ‘Mutawas’. The good people of the department for promoting virtue and preventing vice.
During my formative years they were something to be feared. We would hear stories about them shouting at girls to cover. Making them sign documents that said stuff along the lines of “I, so and so, am guilty of walking around with my face uncovered like a hussy. I promise to never ever walk around again with my face uncovered. In fact, I promise to never walk around at all”.
I must say though, I have never really had a serious run in with them. The worse that happened was being shouted at to cover my face but the man shouting had the decency to keep on walking while he shouted. But we heard stories. They were told like the boogie man stories, no one knew anyone the stories happened to (accept once a friend of mine had a bad run in but they were not official members of the ‘hay’a’ and everything they did was completely illegal. I will leave at for another post). Not to say they didn’t do horrible things, just saying the worst I got was a nasty telling off.
People also don’t seem to realise that the majority of Saudi women in most parts of KSA cover their faces regardless of the religious police because that is our custom. It is the minority, on the large scale of Saudi Arabia, that do not cover their faces.
Never the less, I was terrified of them. On the few occasions we did go to restaurants we were in booths with paravans cutting us off from the outside world and when the waiters would sound the alarm saying ‘Mutawaaa! mutawaaa!’ (religious police) we would cover our faces and everyone would pretend it was possible to eat our food through our veils. I suspect the reason they would come in is because they knew they would scare half the people out of the restaurant or malls and back to their homes.
But sometime between 97 when I moved to London and 02 when I moved back there was a huge change. My younger sisters would go to restaurants all the time, restaurants with no partitions! Girls in malls would walk around with their faces uncovered, some of the Tweens would even let their head scarf drop to their shoulders. The ‘Mutawa’s’ would still patrol, but not all the time and on more than one occasion if they shouted they would get shouted at right back. My sisters thought it was comical how worried I would be when we went shopping or to a restaurant. Their childhood, again only 5 years behind mine, was very different to mine.
Even with this very clear change, I still have residual fear left over from years of conditioning by society that the boogie man will get you if you step out of line. It sounds so sinister but, speaking for myself, I do not feel like someone who had an oppressed or tortured life. It was just the way things were. We still went to school, had parties, went to fun fairs. We had fun.
What brought this all back to my mind was the shopping trip I went on yesterday. My kids were invited to a birthday party today and of course I didn’t go to get the gifts till yesterday, last minute as usual. I decided to go to The Early Learning Center because our choices for good, non electronic toys are limited. And because there is one in Panorama mall which is relatively calm and easy to get to as opposed to Toys R Us or Al-Mamlaka or Al-Faisalia mall.
So I got in the car and asked the driver to take me to the mall. I was on the phone with a friend of mine discussing things of earth shattering importance when we arrived. So I jumped out the car and walked in the mall blabbering away on a Wednesday night at 9 pm. We hung up as I headed towards the kids play area where the toy store is when I suddenly realised something. I’m alone in a crowded mall on a weekend at night in Saudi. My face was uncovered… Was it ok to be alone? I’m not sure…
I kept thinking, should I cover my face? No, not going to. It’s not like I have any make up on or anything, I’m as pale as… something very pale I cannot seem to think of right now. So I doubt I could be considered a temptation. I decided to do the nun look. That is when I wrap the scarf around my head and get the rest of the scarf material and fold it on top of my head so it looks like a nuns head-dress.
I felt a little better walking around with my nun look going on. Then, I saw them. Two men in short robes and a third in a security uniform. It was the Mutawa’s!
I could see them ahead of me… I contemplated leaving the mall all together, but then I would have to tell my sisters why I didn’t get any presents and they would mock me and tell the story of “the time B was so scared of the Mutawa’s she left the mall”. So I rushed in a little shop, passed a woman on her own. Then, I looked out of the door way and saw that there was another woman on her own, well she was pushing a pram with a baby in it. But she wasn’t with a man. Then, after a couple of minutes of observation, there were quite a few men-less women there.
I saw that the Mutawas were heading in the direction of the shop I wanted so I decided that my strategy would be to stay behind them at all times. The other piece of genius I came up with was to move in and out of groups of women so that they wouldn’t see my aloneness if they happened to turn around. This worked well till I found myself staring at the face of a confused man who turned around to find me standing in between his wife and his daughter.
After a few minutes of this insanity, I realised that nothing was happening. The men were walking around in between all of these people. Women without their men, women with make up on, groups of young girls talking and laughing. And no one seemed much to care about the presence of the mutawas but me. When a tall blond woman wearing an open abaya and a thin head scarf that didn’t cover much of her long blondness walked by hand in hand with a tall blond male version of herself and they still didn’t bat an eye I thought hold on! What the hell am I doing.
At that point I just walked, like a normal person with all theIr mental faculties in tact, to the toy store. After all this damn trouble I didn’t find anything. I then walked out, again much faster and in a normal fashion, and went to the Jareer bookstore beside it and found great gifts there. It is a great place to find puzzles and experiments and board games as opposed to the plasticy electronicy stuff you find everywhere else.
A few notes; my elder sister says that it is very obvious, after telling her bout my ordeal, that I need to get out more. The other gem she told me was never do the nun look. It is, apparently, an exclusively Saudi look which means if anyone will get shouted at it is most probably the woman with the nun look going on. Just stick to the regular black scarf wrapped around your head look.