Saudi Arabia: Dining by gender

Fahad Shadeed/REUTERS
Saudi women have their lunch at the Luthan Hotel, which caters exclusively to women, in Riyadh March 19.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondentٍٍٍّ

When eating out in Riyadh, the first priority is finding the right door.

A man alone? Or part of an all-male group? Then the door for you is the one marked “singles entrance.”

The other door, labeled “family entrance,” is for everyone else: A woman on her own, a group of women, a married couple, or parents with children.

This longtime practice in Saudi restaurants has one aim: To prevent men from seeing or being in close proximity to women to whom they are unrelated by birth or marriage. And it is the rule in establishments from an informal Starbucks to high-end dining places. Approaches to the wrong door will elicit frantic hand-waving from restaurant staffers.

The family section of most restaurants also offers what some patrons relish, but is usually only available in pricey American restaurants: privacy. For those Saudi families who seek seclusion from prying eyes, many tables are in booths or tiny cubicles with long curtains around them. This privacy also allows Saudi women to doff their face veils for easier eating.

The anomaly in all this is the male waiters who pull aside the curtains to take orders and deliver food. What about shielding Saudi women from their gaze?

It’s a question that often generates a chuckle or shrugged shoulders, as Saudis tacitly acknowledge this chink in their gender segregation program.

Most waiters, just like the family chauffeurs who drive Saudi women, are foreigners. This appears to exempt them from the strict rules that govern gender segregation.

Agents of the feared Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice are responsible for enforcing the restaurant rules. But these days, things have been relaxed a bit and it is possible for a group of foreigners who include unrelated men and women to dine together without incident. And in Jeddah, the commission’s enforcers have been banned from entering restaurants to spy on groups or couples who might be disobeying the gender segregation rules that offer a unique dining experience.

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