The secret behind the veil: Saudi women find solace in ‘safe love’
Caught in a rigid society that stifles affection even within marriage, women in the kingdom are turning to lesbianism.
In theory, Saudi Arabia should not exist — its survival defies the laws of logic and history.
Look at its princely rulers, dressed in funny clothes, trusting in God rather than man and running their oil-rich country on principles that most of the world has abandoned with relief.
Shops are closed for prayer five times a day, executions take place in the street — and once we get started on the status of women . . .
Mashael (not her real name) got married when she was 18. “I’d been seeing my husband secretly for about a year and a half,” she remembers. “His sister was a good friend of mine, and she helped us get together away from the world. We spent hours on the phone. I was crazy about him. I forced my family to agree. It was so romantic.”
But the romance melted within months of the couple getting married.
“I could not believe how quickly it happened. After the second day, I thought, ‘This man is weird.’ He was so incredibly possessive. I was no longer my own person. He expected me to build every detail of my life around him while he kept the right to do whatever he liked. He told me what to wear, how he wanted me to cut my hair — even what I should think and feel. That was his right. I was his new piece of property.”
The world is full of possessive and domineering husbands, but in Saudi Arabia the law actually enshrines the principle that the male knows better than the female.
A woman may not enrol in university, open a bank account, get a job, or travel outside the country without the written permission of a mahram (guardian), who must be a male blood relative — her father, grandfather, brother, husband or, in the case of a widow or separated woman, her adult son.
“I had to agree completely with his opinions, what he felt about our family and friends. If I disagreed, he’d fly into a temper, use ugly words and threaten me. I knew that I had made a terrible mistake. I wanted to go back to my family, but my pride would not let me. I knew that they would blame me.”
Mashael had been unwilling to accept the ancient tradition of family-arranged marriage, with its modest, not to say pessimistic, expectations of personal happiness. Like a growing number of young Saudis, she had been tempted by the western fantasy of fulfilment through “love”, which Saudi TV and popular culture promote today as enthusiastically as any Hollywood movie.
But Saudi taboos rule out the rituals of courtship and sexual experimentation by which young westerners have the chance to make their mistakes and move on. Open dating, let alone living together, is unthinkable in a society ruled by traditions that judge families by their ability to keep their daughters virginal.
“My husband and I simply did not know each other,” says Mashael, today a stylish woman in her late thirties, whose long black hair tumbles over the black silk of her abaya, an outer garment. “I’m not blaming anyone but myself. We married too young.”
Having fallen victim to a common Saudi problem, she adopted what turns out to be a common Saudi solution. “I found love with a woman. Before I was married, I never knew that a relationship between woman and woman could happen. I did not dream it was possible. Then I went to university, and I had my first love affair with a woman. It was soft. It was warm. It was like a painkiller.”
Lesbianism is not hard to find on Saudi female campuses, according to numerous Saudi and western women, with crushes and cliques and superclose friendships.
These relationships may not always be sexual, but they are marked by the heightened emotions described by Jane Austen and other chroniclers of early 19th-century England, where the industrial revolution was creating the world’s first “modern” society, bringing new concepts of “romance” and individual choice into conflict with traditional family rules and rigidities.