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THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

Here, It's Ladies' Day Every Day

Saudi women can shop unfettered at a tony mall in Riyadh. Its presence is a poignant example of gender segregation amid modernization.

June 12, 2004|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — There is no heavenly sentry outside the Ladies' Kingdom, only a listless pair of khaki-clad policemen ready to run off any errant men. The women make their way past the gatekeepers, disappear behind frosted glass and step into a shopping center all their own.

The white floors glisten like pearl; the ceilings stretch high and airy. A hatcheck clerk collects abayas, the heavy black shrouds that women must wear in public. Unsheathed women saunter among the lingerie displays in plunging baby T-shirts and thigh-hugging pants. Philippine and Indian nannies trail with strollers.

"I prefer to shop in Rome or Beirut," says Aziza Abdel Aziz, a 30-year-old Saudi banker who has sunk herself into a bench with a small mountain of newly purchased shoes at her feet. "But at least here we can remove the cover, take a coffee and just" -- she grasps for a word -- "relax."

In a land where women are kept under wraps by packs of cane-wielding religious police, the Ladies' Kingdom is a rare liberated zone. Some call it a scrap of progress for women who enjoy few liberties. Others see yet another monument to gender segregation -- a reminder that Saudi society will endure any complication and cost to keep the "ladies" far from men.

It is just one floor in one shopping mall, tucked within a massive arc of glittering steel and glass that rises from the flat stretches of Riyadh. But this ring of posh boutiques and polished coffee corners offers a very particular glimpse into a country that is enamored of all things modern and fashionable -- and ruled by a rigid code of Islamic and desert customs.

Saudi women are forbidden to check into hotels alone or travel abroad without permission from a male guardian. They may not drive and are generally banned from mixing with men in classrooms or offices.

Teenage Saudi boys are so hungry for contact with girls that they are engaging in an unusual mating ritual: They scrawl their names and telephone numbers on slips of paper, crumple them into balls and hurl them at passing girls in shopping centers when the religious police aren't looking.

"No one even dares discuss the question," says a young Saudi intellectual who, like nearly all Saudis, was unwilling to be quoted by name on the topic of women. "But what you see in Saudi Arabia is absolutely abnormal, by all means. Leaving the ethical and moral dilemmas aside, look at it practically -- it's destroying the economy and society."

Quietly, women have begun to stand up for themselves, albeit in ways that would be almost imperceptible to most Westerners. In January, some of Saudi Arabia's most influential businesswomen drew the fury of the religious authorities by appearing unveiled and mingling with men at an economics conference in the Red Sea port city of Jidda where Bill Clinton was a keynote speaker.

"Allowing women to mix with men is the root of every evil and catastrophe," thundered Saudi Arabia's leading cleric, Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al Sheik.

Gender mixing is "highly punishable," he said, "a reason for greater decadence and adultery."

This spring, a popular TV anchorwoman, beaten by her husband, allowed video of her bruised, contorted face to be televised in a protest against domestic violence.

But civil disobedience is hardly the currency in the corridors of the Ladies' Kingdom, billed as "an oasis for ladies in the big city."

"The greeter at the mall entrance is the last male to have any contact as the customers sweep through the main door," promises an advertisement for the shopping center. "First stop is the concierge desk, manned, of course, by ladies.... Shielded from the unwelcome gaze of people on the lower floor by a frosted panel, customers are free for the first time to browse, shop and try on clothes, test cosmetics and much more."

Trying on clothes has been a rare luxury in Saudi Arabia, where all salesclerks in mixed shops must be men, and where women's dressing rooms are forbidden. In the haven of the Ladies' Kingdom, women can try on clothes and lipstick at Saks, have their nails painted or shop for toys. They can take a yoga class at the women-only spa, send faxes from the business center or visit a bank with a female staff.

They can sip espresso at an all-female Starbucks. In the Starbucks two stories down, a woman so audacious as to plant herself in one of the plush seats in plain view will be politely ordered to leave. She will be directed to enter through a separate door and buy her latte at the Family Counter on the other side of the high wooden walls.

"Family" means that women are permitted and lone men are not. Even the steel takeout counters at McDonalds and Haagen-Dazs are split by plywood dividers, with one side marked "Ladies" and the other, "Gents."

Postures slacken as the "Ladies Only" elevator car climbs heavenward toward the Kingdom. A woman tugs a panel of thin black silk off her face and drapes it over her head with a tiny sigh.

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