Published: February 2016

Magazine  |  February 2016

The Changing Face of Saudi Women

In a deeply conservative culture, they are carefully redefining the boundaries of public life.

Picture of Saudi women enjoying brunch at a fashionable Riyadh restaurant
POWER BRUNCH, SAUDI VERSION  Aljazi Alrakan (standing), a dentist and self-described lifestyle blogger, joins friends in a fashionable Riyadh restaurant. Medicine and teaching were careers open to Saudi women early on; both suited a single-sex clientele. With more women than men now in universities, “there are new careers,” Alrakan says. “I look at girls in their early 20s, and I think, They carry themselves more confidently.”
By Cynthia Gorney
Photographs by Lynsey Addario
Published January 13, 2016

Inside her family’s sitting room, where she had plumped onto a sofa to pour us Arabic coffee, Noof Hassan was testing out the word “headhunted.” She had never learned this in her English classes at school, and when she heard me say it, she made me repeat it because she liked it so much. “Yes!” she said. “I was headhunted. I’d had many offers before. But this time even my boss said, ‘We don’t want you to go—but this is a good offer.’ ”

Noof is 32 and has thick brown hair, caramel skin, and merry, almond-shaped eyes. The apartment she shares with her husband, Sami, and their two small sons takes up one floor of a three-story building in a crowded neighborhood of Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. Two years ago, the first time I met her, she was a manager in a food-processing factory, overseeing a dozen workers in an experimental all-female wing that was part of a nationwide campaign to draw Saudi women into paying jobs. Now, in the lighting assembly plant that had just poached her away, Noof was in charge of ten times that many. Her salary had shot up too.

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“They have given me a nickname there,” she said. The women Noof supervises work in an area off-limits to men, but this company’s managerial offices are “mixed,” as the Saudis say: men and women, unrelated by blood or marriage, in close proximity every day. Addressing each other with more than formal courtesies. Attending meetings at the same conference table. Maybe poring side by side over the same document. Saudi Arabia is the most profoundly gender-segregated nation on Earth, and amid the fraught, fragile, extraordinary changes under way in the daily lives of the kingdom’s women—multiple generations, pushed by new labor policies and the encouragements of the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, are now debating what it means to be both truly modern and truly Saudi—this matter of mixing remains very controversial indeed. There are women here who won’t even consider a job that requires it.

There are women who might consider such a job but are overruled by their parents, or their husbands, or worried relatives saying, no, not you; other Muslim countries may permit such a thing, but in Saudi Arabia this is not what decent women do. There are women at the opposite end of the spectrum too, quite at ease with male colleagues—in the past decade, government scholarship programs have sent tens of thousands of Saudi women to study abroad, and they’re coming home, many impatient to push the pace of change.

Picture of a women-only fashion show at a store in Riyadh
GLAMOUR FINDS ITS OWN DISPLAY  In the comfort of no-men-allowed settings, like this fashion show put on by an Italian stylist in a Riyadh store, Saudi women of means explore different styles. Models like this one are often foreign, as that role is still seen as risqué. A woman’s new party dress and eye makeup might be seen only by her husband and female friends; for those who can afford these things, they’re enticing nonetheless.

Somewhere along that complicated spectrum, improvising to suit her own ideas about dignity, Noof has established her personal requirements inside the company offices: no physical contact with men, please, no matter how incidental. “The lady who is training me understands,” Noof said. “I told her, ‘This is not because I have a baby and am worried about germs. This is religion. I can’t touch a man who is not my father, my uncle, my brother. That’s why.’”

Thus the nickname. “Mrs. Noof Not Shaking Hands,” Noof said, and laughed so hard that she almost fell over on the sofa. Noof’s laugh, which is rich, is one of the reasons we became friends. She’s quick-witted and tough. She makes fun of people who are officious or rude. One of her cell phones rings to music from Grey’s Anatomy. In her 20s she rejected alternative suitors preferred by her family because she was determined to marry Sami, whom she loved. She estimates that she saw Titanic at least ten times when she was a teenager; movie theaters are prohibited in Saudi Arabia, but popular DVDs are easy to come by, no matter what disapproving conservative sheikhs may say. (When I recalled that Titanic includes an enthusiastic sex scene featuring the not-yet-married heroine, Noof was unruffled. “Yeah, it’s OK,” she said. “It’s her culture.”)

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.

I tell you these things here because Sami was about to drive us to the mall so Noof could help me pick out a new abaya, the ankle-length covering garment women must wear in Saudi Arabia, and I want you to see her before she goes to the bedroom closet for one of her own, all of which are black. Abayas in colors are starting to proliferate in Jeddah, the less conservative port city in the west, but in Riyadh a nonblack abaya worn in public still invites scowls from strangers 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 pockets, 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, leaving 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 fodder 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 father 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, other 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.

Picture of gender-separated lines at a café in Riyadh
SEPARATION IS EVERYWHERE, EVEN IN LINE  Food outlets, like this café in Riyadh, must follow unique Saudi laws: All lines, counters, and eating areas are divided to keep unrelated men and women apart, although customers sometimes ignore the signs. Saudi authorities insist, to an extent unmatched in any other Muslim country, that Islam demands this separation in public and that these rules keep society orderly, honor tradition, and show respect for God.

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 relatives. Men and women not tied by blood or marriage 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, gender 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 appointing women to the royal advisory council, the Shura, the ensuing national clamor—outrage from conservatives, elation from women’s advocates—included serious questions as to how these women could properly be seated. Should they be given separate chambers, with video links to their colleagues? Almost all Saudi schools are single sex, including faculty, and video is how some colleges handle lectures by professors of the wrong gender.

Even the “jobs feminization” campaign to encourage Saudi women to join the labor force, a five-year-old initiative also ordered and championed by Abdullah before his death last year, has come with elaborate segregation rules. After decades of an informal prohibition on women taking jobs that might place them in contact with men, certain kinds of retail stores have been ordered to hire female clerks, and the government is offering incentives for putting Saudi women on the payroll. The female supermarket cashiers, though, are grouped away from the male cashiers. Brand-new interior walls snake through department stores, separating male from female clerks. Every workplace that includes both genders is required to designate a no-men-allowed area where women can feel more “comfortable”—I heard that word from women, over and over.

So I would ask: Help me understand. Why is that more comfortable?

And the women’s answers almost always started the same way: Well, in the women’s area you can take off your abaya, relax, and ...

Why can’t you take off your abaya in front of the men?

This is when they would regard me levelly for a moment, and then sigh and nod, like, OK, here we go.

Picture of sisters enjoying a weekend picnic in the desert outside Riyadh
CELL PHONES UPDATE A VENERABLE PASTIME  In winter the Saudi tradition of weekend picnics in the desert—with SUVs, multicourse meals, and dune buggies so the men can roar around on the sand—remains popular. Three of the five al Basri sisters relax as their children romp on this slope outside Riyadh. In summer, air-conditioned shopping malls are the public destination most inviting to women and families.

Because we are Saudi, and inside Saudi Arabia, we don’t. That would have been the easiest reply, but no one ever worded it that way; this obligation to hide the female form from nonfamily men, so perplexing and unsettling to outsiders, can be complicated for Saudis too. Nearly every woman who talked to me about covering invoked tradition, social pressure, religious devotion, tribal loyalty, and the primacy Saudi culture places upon respectability, the assurance that a woman’s honor—her fidelity and probity, if she’s married; her modesty and virginity, if she’s not—remains unimpeachable.

Do not imagine that the only enforcers of these standards are men, either. They’re mothers, aunts, sisters, female passersby who feel free to chide women they don’t know. “Why are you trying to attract men? Cover!” a 25-year-old Riyadh woman recited in frustration for me, mimicking scoldings from strangers. “It’s like she’s covering head to toe and asking other women to be exactly like her.”

Because each time I returned to the United States from Saudi Arabia, everybody I knew asked whether I had been forced to wear a burka, some wardrobe clarification may be useful. The Saudi women’s covering robe is the abaya—not the chador (Iran) or the burka (Afghanistan). Although very conservative women sometimes wear an over-the-head variation, abayas are generally neck-down garments; think of a judge’s robes. Women in public may shed their abayas in and around hospitals, inside certain gated residential areas for foreigners, and on the premises of women-only facilities. (One of the fanciest shopping malls in Riyadh, for example, contains a whole floor strictly for women.) Outside of those places: no. Men wear jeans or suits or the white Arabian robes called thobes. Women past adolescence, including expat corporate managers and visiting reporters, wear abayas.

Why black, which absorbs heat, in one of the hottest places on the planet? Speculative explanations abound: because black is unappealing to a man’s gaze, or because there’s an Islamic scriptural reference to women of the Prophet Muhammad’s time wearing clothing that made them resemble black crows. There’s no law that specifies abaya color. There’s no actual law requiring abayas, for that matter. Four decades ago, older Saudi women told me, protocols for covering and comportment varied across the kingdom, according to region, class, and one’s own family and tribal standards. The monarchy was a young nation then—established in 1932, newly flush with oil money, and still a patchwork of Arab cultures, from desert tribes with ancient traditions to cosmopolitan cities along the coasts. Although Islam of an especially conservative and all-consuming form was the faith of the whole country, its expression varied from place to place.

And in certain Saudi regions of that era, older women remember, there was nothing shocking about going out in a casual short abaya or wearing modest clothing with no outer cover at all. “Most of us went without veils,” a retired Riyadh pediatrician in her 70s recalled. “Sitting with a man you are not married to, in a restaurant? No problem, as long as you were behaving correctly. And then—the change. Some twisting, I will say. In the mind, in the heart.”


EDUCATED AND ENTERING THE WORKFORCE  Over the past four decades Saudi Arabia has achieved substantial advances in education for women, most recently under reforms instituted by the late King Abdullah. Although he encouraged women to study and work, the nation still lags behind many other Muslim countries when it comes to employment opportunities for women.

The change came in the 1980s, as conservative Islamist movements were burgeoning throughout the Middle East. The Saudi government, its legitimacy threatened by such upheaval, enlisted religious police in a kingdom-wide crackdown that imposed upon all Saudis the rigidity of its most conservative cultures. School curriculum was revamped. Music was silenced as un-Islamic. Couples walking or driving in public together were forced to show police their marriage licenses.

And central to the conservative crusade was the castigation of women: for succumbing to Western influence, for appearing outside the home without male guardians, for speaking in voices that might distract or seduce men, for dishonoring God by failing to drape themselves completely in black. In Arabic, Muslims use the word awrah to mean the more private parts of the body, those a respectable person always covers in public. Every society in the world has its own versions of awrah, and the Saudi Arabia of the past few decades has instructed all its faithful to regard as awrah not only a woman’s hair, as is widely taught across the Muslim world, but also her calves, her arms, and perhaps—depending—her face.

Saudis were amused by my efforts to grasp this “depending” part; it was like a newcomer to American culture interrogating one woman after another about the rules for displaying cleavage. We veil our faces, they would tell me, when it feels right. When our families follow imams who insist the face is awrah, even though other imams say it isn’t. When the boys we knew as children would be titillated and embarrassed to see our adult faces exposed. When the message we want to give off is respect me, not look at me. Women debate each other about the niqab, which is the word Saudis use for the black, tie-on cloth made specifically for covering the face; I once sat through a table-pounding niqab argument among three Riyadh feminists, one of whom insisted that any modern woman who “chooses” to veil her face does so only under pressure from the oppressive society around her. (“It’s NEVER a choice! It is dehumanizing to wear the niqab!” “How can you SAY that?” “NEVER A CHOICE!”)

It was Noof Hassan, in fact, who articulated the pithiest veiling explanation I heard, while she was at work one day and caught me watching her deft adjustments as she entered and exited the women-only factory area. Scarf off face, scarf back over face—Noof glanced at me and said lightly, “This is not something weird for us.” Saudi society is still tribal in many ways; women and men alike feel those around them watching, making assumptions about their family standards, passing judgment. Dayooth means a man who is not sufficiently vigilant about his wife and other female relatives whose honor he’s supposed to be guarding. It is an eviscerating label. “Wimp” does not begin to convey it.

Picture of a Saudi woman who is a private trainer and kickboxing teacher
FEMALE, SAUDI, AND FIERCE  Long discouraged from sports, especially those that clerics call masculine, urban women are drawn to clubs and home gyms where they can exercise away from men. Halah Alhamrani, 39, teaches kickboxing at her home in Jeddah; she’s a physical trainer, a career that women are taking up despite some hostile response. “Not just men,” says another Jeddah trainer. “A lot of closed-minded women see what we’re doing as a disgrace.”

“The problem is how they are thinking,” Noof said now, from the passenger seat of the Toyota. “This is the issue.”

Sami, behind the wheel, said, “When we go out to shop or something, I feel people look at her.”

“Staring,” Noof said. “Not just looking. Staring.”

The most disturbing stares, the ones that rattle Sami, come from men. “So I’m—‘Please, Noof, cover your face,’” Sami said. “So he doesn’t look to see my wife.”

I wondered about the Prophet Muhammad’s declaration that men have their own obligation to turn away from temptation and disrespect.

“Yes,” Noof said. “Sometimes I’m telling Sami, ‘The guy has to stop staring, because this is our religion. Why do I have to cover?’”

Sami was quiet, concentrating on the traffic. He’s a financial manager. He wears black-rimmed glasses and has a short beard and a gentle countenance. “My answer will be, this guy, he’s a Muslim, but he doesn’t follow Islam in the right way,” he said finally. “This man thinks, ‘She doesn’t cover her face because she likes people to look at her face.’ They think like this.”

I said that in many societies it was not uncommon for a man, when troubled by the way another man was contemplating his wife, to threaten to punch his lights out.

Sami nodded. He was smiling. “If I fight with the guy,” he said, “that means I fight every day.”

Noof chuckled. “Too much effort,” she said, from behind the black of her scarf. “Look, you can see everything. Try it.” I was wearing a tarha and tried to rewrap like Noof: twice around tightly, with the remaining scarf length pulled over my face. The cloth was sheer, evidently woven with this purpose in mind, and outside the car windows things were dimmer and grayer, but visible. A few blocks ahead, a lighted mall hove into view.

Testing the Boundaries

I needed a new abaya because a female Saudi acquaintance with a mordant wit had suggested that the fraying abaya I’d been wearing for weeks might best be retired by burning it. Emergency shopping help pls, I texted Noof, and Noof had texted back, sure my dear. Now we left Sami to stash the car alongside the other husbands and chauffeurs while Noof led me briskly to the abaya wing, where seven shops stood side by side, a plate-glass-fronted lineup of fluttering, shimmering shades of black.

“Whoa,” I said. Noof winked at me. She had rearranged her tarha to half veil—men don’t hang around abaya shops much. “I think this place first,” she said, eyeballing one of the entrance doors, and strode in.

An urban Saudi shopping mall can feel like a panoramic stage in which many tiny dramas peculiar to the modern kingdom are all under way at once. Young women window-shop with cell phones pressed to their ears, angling ice-cream cones or soda drink straws into their mouths beneath their niqabs. Pakistani and Filipino drivers nap in the parking lots or video call their overseas families, waiting for the women who employ them to emerge. (How do the drivers figure out which black-veiled lady is which? I once asked a Saudi friend. “Shoes and handbags,” she replied.) Inside the relief of reliable air-conditioning are playgrounds, furniture stores, eyeglasses stores, fitness centers, and supermarkets. There’s no other nexus of Saudi commerce so steadily populated by women, and after a while I found myself studying passing shoes and handbags, imagining them attached to women I was coming to know: the retired pediatrician, the graphic designer, the market checkout clerk, the business entrepreneur, the sociology professor, the lawyer who plays basketball three nights a week and is six feet tall, with a wicked layup.

That lawyer, a 30-year-old named Aljawharah Fallatah, plays in women-only gyms in girls’ schools or health clubs. Why not outdoors, where the young men go? Because that is where the young men go, and it would be cumbersome to play good basketball in an abaya. The point, Fallatah reminded me after a practice one evening, is that she’s a working attorney in a nation where, until the early 1960s, most girls had nowhere to attend school. A decade ago Saudi women were first allowed to study law. Three years ago the first women received permission to work as lawyers rather than just consultants. Women now make up more than half of the kingdom’s university students. When King Abdullah started a royal scholarship program for study abroad in 2005, women were included among its initial scholars; as of 2014, more than 35,000 Saudi women were enrolled in foreign undergraduate and graduate programs, with more than half studying in the United States.

And Fallatah now makes appearances in court. This is not to suggest any sort of parity for male and female professionals; Saudi women with advanced educations complain of underemployment and frustration in a society only beginning to accept females into high-level jobs. That’s a familiar lament, though, in nations much older than Saudi Arabia. “What we did in ten years is faster than what women in the United States did in a hundred years,” said Nailah Attar, the co-founder of a national initiative called Baladi, which means My Country. “We are running very fast to change very fast. I think we should slow down a little bit—so people accept it.”

Attar, along with other female business and academic leaders from around the kingdom, established Baladi five years ago to persuade Saudi women to accept the prospect of voting and running for office themselves. Hostility from traditionalists has been part of their challenge, but so has indifference, even from ambitious women: The first time in nearly a half century that Saudi men voted was in 2005, and the only elected offices are municipal council seats, positions of no authority. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not a constitutional monarchy. There’s no separate prime minister, no parliament. Absolute control remains in the hands of the Al Sauds, the now enormous family for whom the nation was named.

This obligation to hide the female form from men who are not family, so perplexing and unsettling to outsiders, can be complicated for Saudis too.

“Sometimes we’re in the 21st century, and sometimes we’re in the 19th,” a professional Riyadh woman who has lived abroad told me, sounding both aggrieved and resigned. “And imagine yourself in the European Middle Ages, with the Catholic Church.” She meant that in Saudi Arabia, dogmatic religious leaders and a royal dynasty still officially share power, to an extent almost unfathomable to people from more secular countries. Insults to Islam or threats to national security—both expediently elastic categories, encompassing blogging, social media, and open defense of the already accused—are among the crimes punishable by imprisonment, flogging, or death. Executions are carried out by public beheading. The organization that runs the religious police (who often operate alongside national police and are authorized to advise, berate, and arrest) is called the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

The conviction that a society’s virtue and vice can be managed by keeping men and women apart—that by nature men are lustful and women seductive, so that being a good Muslim requires constant attention to the perils of close contact—is so foundational in daily life that it reappears, for the mystified visitor, in one explanation after another. The reason hotel swimming pools won’t admit women or set aside a ladies-only hour: Men might glimpse women’s moving shapes in the water. The reason most Saudi clothing stores have no dressing rooms: Women won’t take their clothes off with male clerks on the other side of the door. The reason Saudi Arabia has only one movie theater, a new science museum IMAX: The government shut all cinemas during the conservative surge in the 1980s. Besides screening problematic Western movies, dark movie theaters make it easier for men and women to mix.

And the famous prohibition against women drivers? Raising this with Saudi girls and women, I found, elicits an interesting set of reactions, often in the same sequence. First, they say, it is a certainty that Saudi women will be driving sooner or later, despite the thriving subeconomy—taxis, private drivers, the recruiting industry that brings in those drivers from abroad—that feeds off the men-only rules. Some women drive already, in the desert or other areas where no one pays attention; a causeway connects eastern Saudi Arabia to Bahrain, and it’s not unusual for Saudi husbands or chauffeurs to exit the driver’s seat at the border so the madam can take over.

The second reaction is a sober consideration of the anti-women-driving arguments. The proposition that women would prove unfit behind the wheel and cause accidents—preposterous; the traffic death rate on Saudi highways is a source of national despair. The proposition that women would have affairs and abandon their families if they could leave home whenever they wished—only the most backward-looking sheikhs still make such claims, replied women I talked with. Abdullah himself urged us into the workplace, they would say. How can we do a proper job if we must rely on others to get us to work on time?

The serious worry, both women and men told me, is for the drivers themselves—the first women who will drive alone, once they are licensed, amid what are sure to be at least some hostile and predatory men. “I have talked to ladies at my factory about this,” Noof said. “One told me her brother said, ‘If I found any lady driving, I would stop her car and force her to get out.’ Many of the men, not educated, that’s what I’m thinking about. They write this on the social media. ‘We will make you stop driving the cars.’”

That brother, we wondered—does he plan to protect his sister from harassers, or do the harassing himself? Or both? We flipped through hanging abayas, which I was learning come stretchy and machine washable for power walking or desert picnicking; tastefully embroidered for the workplace or visits to extended family; and gussied up for fancy occasions, with sparkly stones or ruffles or—hello!—peacock feather eyes woven right into the cloth. “No,” Noof said firmly, flipping and squinting and fingering. “No. No. No.” Then she stopped, her hand on a deep gray sleeve with a black band of satin at the wrist. “OK, see if you like this,” Noof said. “Soft.”

Picture of a Riyadh mall store open to families only
INVISIBLE WALLS ARE EFFECTIVE TOO  With new policies bringing women into some sales jobs, the Families Only sign in this Riyadh mall store tells a lone male shopper he can’t come in. For men unaccompanied by wives or children, close contact with female clerks is still unacceptable in much of Saudi Arabia. Detailed rules specify which products must be sold by which gender: no female clerks for men’s skin care products, for example, and only women may sell lingerie.

The female members of the Shura were sworn in on a February morning in 2013, some with black niqabs or scarves over their faces, others without. The women’s seats were in the great council chambers, alongside the men’s. “We women were grouped together, it’s true,” said Thoraya Obaid, a former UN Population Fund director and UN undersecretary general, who is one of the new members. “But there were no walls and no separations. And we were there.”

Obaid spent 35 years with the United Nations, but she is by no means the only Shura member with professional credentials and an international education. “Of the 30 of us, 27 have medical degrees or Ph.D.’s,” she told me. “Two of us are princesses with long histories of social activism and social work.”

The king wanted women of substance, in other words. Inside Saudi Arabia it’s not hard to encounter privately voiced anger at the royal family, which maintains unyielding dominion over the kingdom’s oil wealth, uses repressive state power to silence any call for representational government, and regularly receives scorching reviews from international human rights organizations. Even so, the mention of Abdullah’s name usually made women’s faces light up. “I remember his statement in Arabic: La tahmeesh, which means, ‘No more marginalization,’” recalled Hanan Al-Ahmadi, a government executive who was in the audience when the king announced his intent to include women in the Shura. “Women, including me, had tears in their eyes.”

Al-Ahmadi was appointed to the Shura. She and her colleagues have inured themselves to the steady broadsides characterizing the female Shura members as shills for the West, messengers of the devil, and so on; the criticism crescendos whenever the argument over driving resumes. Al-Ahmadi is in favor of licensing women drivers, but like Noof and many other Saudis I talked with, she said the West’s fascination with the driving story has created more national defiance than support. “Khalas,” Al-Ahmadi said. Enough. “It’s been too politicized. Sometimes I go places where there are many women, and somebody comes up to me and says, ‘Do you think we care that we drive? This is not our main goal.’”

Ask women from any country what the Main Goal is, and answers will fly at you from many directions. So it is in Saudi Arabia, where I’ve listened and read as women assail the high divorce rate and the divorce system itself (fathers gain custody of all but very young children); the double-standard citizenship rules (gaining citizenship is straightforward for foreign women who marry Saudi men, but almost impossible for foreign men who marry Saudi women); and the treatment of some of the kingdom’s new working women (long hours, low pay).

Picture of Saudi women at a Riyadh luxury goods fair pretending to drive while posing for photos
SOMEDAY IT WILL BE JUST A CAR, NOT A FLASH POINT  The kingdom’s refusal to license women drivers has received so much international press by now that despite ongoing pro-driving campaigns, many women have soured on the issue. Eventually, they say—on a Saudi timetable—women will be allowed to drive. At a Riyadh luxury goods fair, these women pretend to drive while they pose for photos of themselves.

The requirement that every woman live under the guardianship of a designated male comes in for special vitriol too. Officially, a woman is supposed to be able to work, receive medical treatment, or enroll in university without her guardian’s permission. But in Saudi Arabia the official law often yields to tradition, individual interpretations of religious obligation, or fear of repercussions from a woman’s family. (Some employers won’t hire a woman, for example, without her guardian’s approval.) And there are men who use their guardianships, many women say, to punish, control, manipulate.

These are brutal but discrete challenges, women kept telling me, to be taken on one by one, and requiring delicate maneuvering in a place where religious faith, family honor, and state power remain so tightly intertwined. Any outsider urging her countrywomen to fling off their niqabs, Al-Ahmadi says—or to demand en masse their own car keys, or to rip down the separation walls—must understand how many Saudi women would be unempowered, her word, by disruptions that profound. “Many Saudi families will not allow their daughters to work as saleswomen because the walls are not tall enough,” she told me. “So if you want to empower all Saudi girls to have jobs, you have to remove the stigma from these jobs.”

Five years, Noof told me: That’s how long she believes it will be before Saudi women drive. Not that driving is a thing she urgently cares about. She has no pressing interest in learning how. The ban is just a stupidity for a working woman trying hard to live a modern life while devoted to both her faith and her nationality; even Saudi scholars have acknowledged that there’s nothing in the Quran or other sacred texts forbidding women to drive. Noof and Sami share with other relatives a single hired driver, for a thousand-dollar monthly fee—more than many families can afford.

But like a number of women I talked to, Noof said she was relieved that Abdullah never used his royal powers to order the issuing of driver’s licenses for women—and that his successor and brother, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, has made no move to do so. “Step by step,” Noof said. She likes some of the incremental options being debated, like offering licenses at first only to older married women, whose dignified appearance in the driver’s seat might shame harassing hotheads into behaving themselves. “It will happen, I am sure,” she said. “But if you allow all women, tomorrow, it will make a huge mess.”

Picture of a Saudi girl still young enough to play in public without an abaya and scarf
PROPELLING HERSELF, PLAID SNEAKERS AND ALL  Young enough to play in public without cover of abaya and head scarf, 12-year-old Lama Mohammed Bolgari navigates the Jeddah seafront. Vigorous national argument about the proper behavior of modern Saudi men and women is shaping her generation. “We’ve been through a huge transformation,” says royal adviser Hanan Al-Ahmadi. “But we need to be able to create this change gradually and maintain our identity.”

I bought the abaya Noof picked out for me. It cost the equivalent of $40 and was elegant, with black snaps to close it down the front, but I didn’t switch into it right away because Sami had proposed bowling, and I didn’t want my shoe tracks all over the hem. Noof pulled her scarf back over her face. The Riyadh night traffic was wretched. Noof watched Sami drive. She sensed, apparently, that she still needed to convince the foreigner in the backseat that placing her own foot on an accelerator was not the thing she most desired from this life.

“Huge headache, I’m sorry,” she said. “Why should I have to concentrate on the road? I sit here and chat on my mobile, ‘OK, we are arrived.’ I don’t have to search for a parking place.”

The bowling alley turned out to be 12 lanes wide. Men in thobes and women in abayas and children were bowling together, at each lane, and against one wall a man and a niqab-veiled woman studied a pool table from multiple angles, taking turns shooting for the corner pocket.

“Of course you must win,” Noof said firmly. “Or I would be a bad hostess.”

I didn’t. The score, though Noof was too good a hostess to say it aloud, was not even close. She knew how to loft a bowling ball behind the folds of her abaya and hurtle it just so, with spin.

Expressing Themselves on Instagram

Some Saudi women now feel comfortable using social media to celebrate their identities.

Photojournalist Lynsey Addario has covered conflicts around the globe, most especially in the Middle East and Africa. Her recent work has focused on Syrian refugees and maternal mortality in Sierra Leone.

What makes your photographs so significant? It is extremely difficult to photograph women in Saudi Arabia. A majority refused to appear in print. We typically see pictures of women in abayas and niqabs, shopping at upscale malls. I wanted to show a nuanced picture of these women’s lives.

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