Saudi bachelors pay to get into women-only malls

The practice of single men paying for a temporary, fake sister or mother to evade gender segregation laws is on the rise.

By BENJAMIN JOFFE-WALT / THE MEDIA LINE
September 26, 2010 12:52
4 minute read.
saudi women arab 88

saudi women arab 88. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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You’re a young guy with a few hours to waste. The sun is boiling. The tummy is starting to rumble and there in the distance, as if the higher forces had heard your call, is a glistening shopping mall with a food court and female shoppers that would make any mouth water.

But there is no entry says the guard, single men like you need to be with a female relative to enter these ramparts.

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Enter an entrepreneurial young woman. “Wanna be my brother?” she propositions.

50 seconds and 50 Saudi riyals later and you are walking freely into the mall and riding up the shining escalators to the food court with your new ‘sister’.

The practice of single men paying for a temporary, fake sister or mother as a tactic to gain entry to family-only malls in Saudi Arabia is on the rise.

Shopping malls, restaurants, amusement parks and public institutions in Saudi Arabia are strictly segregated by gender. There are shopping malls open only to women, shopping malls open only to men and shopping malls open only to families (i.e. immediate relatives).

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“All the malls have the same stuff,” Oda Dakhlalla, a 49-year-old professional translator told The Media Line. “So the only reason men would want to get into these malls is for flirting or to meet females.”

Dr. Salah bin Abdulaziz Al-Nassar, secretary-general of the National Center for Youth Studies at King Saud University, argued that men paying women for help getting into malls was rare.

“It’s not at all a common phenomenon,” he told The Media Line. “I’ve heard that some of the girls are being paid to help some boys get into the mall, but my daughter is 18 and she told me she hasn’t heard of any cases.”

But Eman Al Nafjan, a Saudi female blogger, argued the phenomenon is growing and the reasons behind it more complex.

“It’s very common, especially in the major malls that have large food courts,” she told The Media Line. “There are almost no malls for men, and a lot of boys just want to shop, so it’s a mixture of boredom and desperation.”

“If you go in the morning or weekdays they won’t stop you,” Al Nafjan said. “But in the evenings and on the weekends they are very strict about not letting in Saudi men.”

Saudi women say the going rate is 50 riyals (some $13) for a woman to help a single man get into a mall, and the punishment if caught is negligible. 

“Once they are inside, men always play all kinds of tricks,” Wajiha Al-Huwaidar, a Saudi women’s rights advocate told The Media Line. “Like if the religious police catch single men inside the men will just say ‘my sister is in the bathroom’. If they catch them lying they will just kick them out of the mall.”

Al-Huwaidar argued it was immoral for women to take money for helping to get around Saudi segregation laws.

“Women do it all the time, but doing it for money is a new thing,” she said. “It’s not nice. Everyone should be able to go inside for free and they are using these men. Most of these guys are jobless anyway and they don’t have much money.”

“There are few places where young men can go to,” Al-Huwaidar continued. “Everything is reserved for families, and if there is a place in a mall for men it is isolated and no fun. So I do it for free when I see young men wanting to go inside a mall to buy something and it says families-only.”

But Al Nafjan argued that while the rule was problematic, it also protects women from harassment.

“I’m against it but at the same time I understand why they have that rule, because Saudi men are famous for harassing women,” she said. “This complete segregation of the sexes is unnatural and makes men view women as objects. I’ve seen 50 year old men harass women and I’ve seen 16 year old boys do it. I’ve even been harassed by men when I had three kids with me and a baby in a stroller.”

Saudi Arabia’s strict patriarchal guardianship system requires all women to be represented by men, either their husband, father or son, in all public and official spheres of life. Women are not allowed to drive, inherit, divorce or gain custody of children, and cannot enter most public spaces without a male guardian.

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