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Of course, a 19-year-old might be more concerned about sex than, say, marriage. (Ibn Battuta was obsessed with both: he possessed a strong libido and married numerous times during his travels.) But the reality for many in the Middle East is that marriage isn't just about religiously sanctioned sex. It's about finding a place in society. Prostitutes and Internet porn help assuage some frustrations, even as they introduce guilt and shame, says Qotb, but they can't provide intimacy and social maturity. While most marriages are still arranged, single Saudis are increasingly captivated by Hollywood-style romances beamed in via satellite and the Internet.
As they attempt to navigate between tradition and modern love, they stumble over the obstacles of Saudi culture, resulting in a unique form of dating that is both an earnest search for connection and fraught with danger. Segregation of the sexes has its origins in both Islam and the early traditions of the peninsula's Bedouin tribes, in which hiding women from the public eye was considered a point of honor and, in an era predating genetic testing, a way of ensuring that offspring were legitimate. This Bedouin culture has spread across the peninsula, though it is weaker in the Red Sea city of Jidda, where over centuries, pilgrims on their way to nearby Mecca have left a more liberal and cosmopolitan imprint. Men and women had always prayed together in Mecca, but conservative clerics argue that stringent laws originally concerning the Prophet Muhammad's wives should apply to all women.
Others justify the ban on mixing by pointing to social problems elsewhere. "These rules help society avoid the mess you see in the West: illegitimate children, single mothers, abortions and children in orphanages," says Sheik Abdallah al-Oweardi, a self-described moderate religious scholar, citing a recent statistic that 40% of all pregnancies in the U.S. are out of wedlock. The laws against mixing mean that single men and women rarely have an opportunity to meet. Most workplaces are segregated as well, except in medicine, where separation could affect the quality of care. That's one of the reasons, say several young female medical students out celebrating the end of finals, that they chose the profession. "Just like in America, the best place to meet someone is at work," one told me. "And for us, that means the hospital." She asked me not to use her name, mortified that she might be perceived as loose for admitting she was interested in meeting men. (Dating in Saudi Arabia is such a sensitive topic that most people I met spoke on the condition that I use their first name only or no name at all.)
Girls Just Want to Have Fun
Saudi girls go out on the prowl just like boys, ducking even stricter rules. And when they do, they have to make sure they dress the part. Women in Saudi Arabia are required to wear a headscarf and an abaya, a loose, full-length gown. In Riyadh, black predominates. But what looks like a uniform from a distance can be at close range a daring code of communication a flash of color on the sleeves, enough Swarovski crystals to complete a chandelier. "Of course boys pay attention to our abayas," says Maha, 22. Hers features artfully slashed sleeves that reveal a white satin lining. It's a Friday evening at the mall, and she is fully made up, complete with false eyelashes. "All the girls want to look good. We do our makeup and hair before coming out," she says. And it works. She met her boyfriend at the mall when he walked up to her and offered his number. He didn't have a good line, but he was handsome, she says. Still, the international rules of flirting applied: "I called after a week, so he wouldn't think I was easy."
For two months, their "dates" were limited to two-hour-long phone calls nearly every night. Now she sometimes goes to his house for dinner, chaperoned by his mother or older sister. Occasionally, they hold hands or sneak a chaste kiss if no one is looking. But it never goes further than that. She French-kissed a boy once, she admits, but would never do so with her current boyfriend. "That wouldn't be proper," she says. "He is the man I want to marry."
Once a couple gets past the numbering stage and the phone calls, finding places to go is challenging. Unmarried couples are not allowed to be together in public; if caught, they can be fined or thrown in jail. For a woman, it can mean a humiliating call to her father and a stain on her reputation. Fear of being busted can turn an otherwise pleasant outing into a stressful evening. A mention of the mutaween, or religious police, invokes shudders. "Oh, don't say their name," one woman tells me, looking around nervously. "It will make them come." Just a few weeks before, she and her boyfriend cowered behind a partition for what seemed like hours as the mutaween swept through a restaurant popular with young couples.