Riyadh, Saudi Arabia — THE hem of my heavy Islamic cloak trailed over floors that glistened like ice. I walked faster, my eyes fixed on a familiar, green icon. I hadn't seen a Starbucks in months, but there it was, tucked into a corner of a fancy shopping mall in the Saudi capital.
After all those bitter little cups of sludgy Arabic coffee, here at last was an improbable snippet of home — caffeinated, comforting, American.I wandered into the shop, filling my lungs with the rich wafts of coffee. The man behind the counter gave me a bemused look; his eyes flickered. I asked for a latte. He shrugged, the milk steamer whined, and he handed over the brimming paper cup. I turned my back on his uneasy face.
Crossing the cafe, I felt the hard stares of Saudi men. A few of them stopped talking as I walked by and watched me pass. Them, too, I ignored. Finally, coffee in hand, I sank into the sumptuous lap of an overstuffed armchair.
"Excuse me," hissed the voice in my ear. "You can't sit here." The man from the counter had appeared at my elbow. He was glaring."Excuse me?" I blinked a few times.
"Emmm," he drew his discomfort into a long syllable, his brows knitted. "You cannot stay here." "What? Uh … why?" Then he said it: "Men only."
He didn't tell me what I would learn later: Starbucks had another, unmarked door around back that led to a smaller espresso bar, and a handful of tables smothered by curtains. That was the "family" section. As a woman, that's where I belonged. I had no right to mix with male customers or sit in plain view of passing shoppers.
Like the segregated South of a bygone United States, today's Saudi Arabia shunts half the population into separate, inferior and usually invisible spaces.
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One afternoon, a candidate invited me to meet his daughter. She spoke fluent English and was not much younger than me. I cannot remember whether she was wearing hijab, the Islamic head scarf, inside her home, but I have a memory of pink. I asked her about the elections.
"Very good," she said. So you really think so, I said gently, even though you can't vote?
"Of course," she said. "Why do I need to vote?" Her father chimed in. He urged her, speaking English for my benefit, to speak candidly. But she insisted: What good was voting? She looked at me as if she felt sorry for me, a woman cast adrift on the rough seas of the world, no male protector in sight.
"Maybe you don't want to vote," I said. "But wouldn't you like to make that choice yourself?"
"I don't need to," she said calmly, blinking slowly and deliberately. "If I have a father or a husband, why do I need to vote? Why should I need to work? They will take care of everything."
Through the years I have met many Saudi women. Some are rebels; some are proudly defensive of Saudi ways, convinced that any discussion of women's rights is a disguised attack on Islam from a hostile Westerner. There was the young dental student who came home from the university and sat up half the night, writing a groundbreaking novel exploring the internal lives and romances of young Saudi women. The oil expert who scolded me for asking about female drivers, pointing out the pitfalls of divorce and custody laws and snapping: "Driving is the least of our problems." I have met women who work as doctors and business consultants. Many of them seem content.
Whatever their thoughts on the matter, they have been assigned a central, symbolic role in what seems to be one of the greatest existential questions in contemporary Saudi Arabia: Can the country opt to develop in some ways and stay frozen in others? Can the kingdom evolve economically and technologically in a global society without relinquishing its particular culture of extreme religious piety and ancient tribal code?
The men are stuck, too. Over coffee one afternoon, an economist told me wistfully of the days when he and his wife had studied overseas, how she'd hopped behind the wheel and did her own thing. She's an independent, outspoken woman, he said. Coming back home to Riyadh had depressed both of them.
"Here, I got another dependent: my wife," he said. He found himself driving her around, chaperoning her as if she were a child. "When they see a woman walking alone here, it's like a wolf watching a sheep. 'Let me take what's unattended.' " He told me that both he and his wife hoped, desperately, that social and political reform would finally dawn in the kingdom. He thought foreign academics were too easy on Saudi Arabia, that they urged only minor changes instead of all-out democracy because they secretly regarded Saudis as "savages" incapable of handling too much freedom.
"I call them propaganda papers," he said of the foreign analysis. "They come up with all these lame excuses." He and his wife had already lost hope for themselves, he said.
"For ourselves, the train has left the station. We are trapped," he said. "I think about my kids. At least when I look at myself in the mirror I'll say: 'At least I said this. At least I wrote this.' "