Strict Rules In Saudi Arabia Render Romance Elusive, But Not Dead

The New York Times has a series of articles on Love in Saudi Arabia. That's capital L "Love," the romantic kind of love as seen in movies and sung about in pop songs. The articles focus on Riyadh, which has strict Islamic laws. Women and men are severely segregated. Women are not allowed to be in a public place alone, without a man. Men are not allowed in malls because they may see women shopping. Women have only recently been able to drive; they are usually driven around the city in cars with tinted windows, attend girls-only schools and universities, and eat in "family" sections of restaurants, which are partitioned from the sections used by single males. But in a country where half of the population is under 25 years old, hormones and dreams are flourishing. So how do you fall in Love?

Love finds a way. The teenage girls interviewed for this story are sneaky and clever, as teenage girls are. Some dress up as men and visit men-only establishments. And while unmarried men and women may not speak to each other because Islam forbids a stranger to hear your voice, this is the era of Facebook and cell phones. Instant messaging and text messaging bring some young people together. Not everyone is comfortable with it, however. Sara al-Tukhaifi, 18, says: "One test is that if you're ashamed to tell your family something, then you know for sure it's wrong. For a while I had Facebook friends who were boys — I didn't e-mail with them or anything, but they asked me to "friend" them and so I did. But then I thought about my family and I took them off the list."

While there are penalties for being caught with an unrelated member of the opposite sex (arrest, flogging) — the worst is the dishonor that would be invoked. Explains Enad al-Mutairi, a 20-year-old police officer: "One of the most important Arab traditions is honor. If my sister goes in the street and someone assaults her, she won't be able to protect herself. The nature of men is that men are more rational. Women are not rational. With one or two or three words, a man can get what he wants from a woman. If I call someone and a girl answers, I have to apologize. It's a huge deal. It is a violation of the house." Enad's cousin, Nader al-Mutairi calls himself "a romantic person." He feels that the way things are set up in Saudi Arabia, "there is no romance." Yet his ring tone is a love song; he is engaged to Enad's sister and they text message each other. When she calls, or writes a message, his phone flashes "My Love" over two interlocked red hearts.

Meanwhile, the Times also interviews a 17-year-old girl named Shaden (seen veiled in the photo above). Her favorite DVD is Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet. "It's a bit like our society, I think," She says. "It's dignified, and a bit strict... When Darcy comes to Elizabeth and says 'I love you' — that's exactly the kind of love I want."

One has to wonder: In a country which offers young men very little in the way of entertainment — no movie theaters, few sports facilities and with shopping malls off-limits — couldn't Love be a worthwhile pastime? If only it were not so difficult to find? As one commenter on the Times blog noted, "[It] is dangerous... to have too many young men in their twenties who have too little to do. They become prey to ideologues of seventh-century political cults, and ultimately, willing cannon fodder." When you don't take Love for granted, when Love is all you need, can Love save the day?

Love On Girls' Side Of The Saudi Divide, Q&A: Love in Saudi Arabia, Young Saudis, Vexed And Entranced By Love's Rules, Love In Saudi Arabia (video) [NY Times]