Wave of Saudi youths challenge kingdom's conservative sway
Saudi Arabia's rulers are allowing young people to push social boundaries – a little.
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The 84-year-old monarch has said he wants to give women more rights and allow more room for personal expression. For the moment, he has reined in the more reactionary of the country's clerics.Skip to next paragraph
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"What are they afraid of: If I'm allowed to drive the country will collapse?" asks Sera Kattoua, a 23-year-old photographer whose lip ring and T-shirt places her well outside the mainstream. "I want this country to really open up, but it's moving very, very slowly."
Of course, there are still few outlets for expression. Abdul and Saleh are part of Jeddah's graffiti subculture, and spend a lot of their free time "tagging" – spraying their nicknames on city walls. "We're looking for ways to express ourselves, there aren't a lot of outlets here," says Abdul. "There are a lot of people who want to show what they can do."
The rash of graffiti across the city in the past few years prompted Nasi bin Salim al-Moteb, president of the municipal council in the Jeddah neighborhood Briman, to erect some walls for the use of spray-can-toting young men. "We have a problem here: Everything is set aside for family activities, and the kids need a place to enjoy and have fun," he says. "This is a start."
While Abdul, an enthusiastic amateur photographer, recently helped set up an art show for local youth at a cafe, the gathering was technically illegal because they didn't have permission.
Fans of Wasted Land, a "death metal" band from Jeddah, are resigned to downloading the group's music from the Internet or traveling outside the kingdom if they want to hear the band. Their plans for a concert at a private compound earlier this year was shut down after authorities caught wind of it. "We got a call and they said, please, you've got to stop this because it will create problems for us and for you," recalls guitarist Ahmed Khojah.
Singer Emad Mujallid says: "It's frustrating. We want to play for people here. Maybe someday."
Young women are also finding a way to live out a minor teen rebellion. The Sultanah abaya shop in downtown Riyadh caters to young Saudi women with elaborate bead work on the shapeless black robes that most wear when outside.
For about $300, shoppers can take home designs that range from the cute (Hello Kitty in shimmering silver) to the mildly rebellious (the Rolling Stone's logo).
Sultanah seems a perfect example of the emerging Saudi Arabia – until the shop assistant says that no pictures are allowed. His fear, though, is not of attracting attention from religious authorities. "These are all original designs!" he protests.
If mutawaeen are lurking around the nearby Kingdom Mall, they aren't bothering the young women who toss their head scarves to their shoulders as they come in and out of the store. One, on her way out, closes a rob over cut-off jeans and sneakers; another on her way in opens a robe to reveal more stylish jeans and high heels.
But her abaya itself is what would probably raise the ire of the protectors of public morality, if only they were hip enough: On its back is a huge, green marijuana leaf.
•Tomorrow: In the absence of public venues, male and female Saudis have taken to gathering in homes for weekly salons to express ideas. But now the government is threatening to force such groups to register with authorities.