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A View From Behind The Veil
Fantastic piece by Megan Stack in today's LA Times. She lived in Saudi Arabia for many years and writes about what it's like to be a third-class citizen there; in other words, a woman. Her story starts off with a trip to a Saudi Arabia Starbucks:

I wandered into the shop, filling my lungs with the rich wafts of coffee. The man behind the counter gave me a bemused look; his eyes flickered. I asked for a latte. He shrugged, the milk steamer whined, and he handed over the brimming paper cup. I turned my back on his uneasy face.

Crossing the cafe, I felt the hard stares of Saudi men. A few of them stopped talking as I walked by and watched me pass. Them, too, I ignored. Finally, coffee in hand, I sank into the sumptuous lap of an overstuffed armchair.

"Excuse me," hissed the voice in my ear. "You can't sit here." The man from the counter had appeared at my elbow. He was glaring.

"Excuse me?" I blinked a few times.

"Emmm," he drew his discomfort into a long syllable, his brows knitted. "You cannot stay here."

"What? Uh … why?"

Then he said it: "Men only."

He didn't tell me what I would learn later: Starbucks had another, unmarked door around back that led to a smaller espresso bar, and a handful of tables smothered by curtains. That was the "family" section. As a woman, that's where I belonged. I had no right to mix with male customers or sit in plain view of passing shoppers. Like the segregated South of a bygone United States, today's Saudi Arabia shunts half the population into separate, inferior and usually invisible spaces.

At that moment, there was only one thing to do. I stood up. From the depths of armchairs, men in their white robes and red-checked kaffiyehs stared impassively over their mugs. I felt blood rushing to my face. I dropped my eyes, and immediately wished I hadn't. Snatching up the skirts of my robe to keep from stumbling, I walked out of the store and into the clatter of the shopping mall.


THAT was nearly four years ago, a lesson learned on one of my first trips to the kingdom. Until that day, I thought I knew what I was doing: I'd heard about Saudi Arabia, that the sexes are wholly segregated. From museums to university campuses to restaurants, the genders live corralled existences. One young, hip, U.S.-educated Saudi friend told me that he arranges to meet his female friends in other Arab cities. It's easier to fly to Damascus or Dubai, he shrugged, than to chill out coeducationally at home.

I was ready to cope, or so I thought. I arrived with a protective smirk in tow, planning to thicken the walls around myself. I'd report a few stories, and go home. I had no inkling that Saudi Arabia, the experience of being a woman there, would stick to me, follow me home on the plane and shadow me through my days, tainting the way I perceived men and women everywhere.

Posted by aalkon at June 6, 2007 8:00 AM


Incredible. I hope this piece opens the eyes of a wide audience who suspect these things but simply don't dwell on them. Perhaps changing attitudes and instilling a sense of indignancy against this culture may save us someday.

Sounds like the writer had a really rotten time, but I hope she realizes what a service she's done.

Posted by: Debra at June 6, 2007 9:05 AM

"An all male coffee bar" - Sort of has a different connotation here.

It is refreshing to hear about a Starbucks with a seprate family section.

Posted by: smurfy at June 6, 2007 9:35 AM

Genuine question: why do people get upset (and I think for good reason) when Yahoo, Microsoft, and Google censure information from their search engines in China, and yet people do not get upset with Starbucks (and most likely similar American companies) for encouraging/supporting these discriminatory, non-Western practices?

Count me in as someone that is upset with Yahoo/Microsoft/Google, but not that upset with Starbucks.

But what is the fundamental difference?

(Note: I do realize that Yahoo also provides information regarding surfing habits to the Chinese Authorities that have led to arrests, but ignore that for now....)

Posted by: jerry at June 6, 2007 10:34 AM

Ms. Stack's article was the most depressing thing I've read in a long time. I actually found my own blood pressure rising thanks to the indignation I felt during her account of her conflict with the bank's security guards. As Americans, experiences like these should only serve as a strong reminder why we need to move away from our dependence on fossil fuels, and by extension Saudi Arabia. It disgusts me that my country is closely allied with nations like this.

And shame on you, Starbucks, for catering to gender apartheid.

Posted by: Rebecca at June 6, 2007 11:15 AM

Amy, I'm right there with you on the blood pressure.

Every time I read about stuff like this I can't help but entertain the idea of rebelling. For instance walking into that all male coffee bar completely naked except for very large automatic weapons. Too bad most of these scenarios would result in my untimely demise.

Did you hear about this?

Posted by: Shinobi at June 6, 2007 1:45 PM

Wow, Not Amy, Rebecca, Me read good.

Posted by: Shinobi at June 6, 2007 1:47 PM

"Genuine question: why do people get upset (and I think for good reason) when Yahoo, Microsoft, and Google censure information from their search engines in China, and yet people do not get upset with Starbucks (and most likely similar American companies) for encouraging/supporting these discriminatory, non-Western practices?"

Good question. I think there are a lot of different factors - for one thing, the censorship is seen as part and parcel of a system in which dissidents can be executed by the state, whereas gender apartheid in Saudi Arabia, awful though it is, doesn't lead to widespread state-run executions of the targets of its persecution (just private honor killings, ugh). For another thing, Yahoo! and Google claim to be in the business of distributing information, and sometimes act quite superior to other companies for this reason; their self-censorship in China makes them into hypocrites. All Starbucks promises to do is sell coffee (and pastries, and tea, etc.). I think there's also the belief that Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft have power in the world because of their patented technology/algorithms/etc. that they could try to use to influence the Chinese government rather than kowtowing. You can't patent the process of selling coffee - you may be able to copyright certain drinks, but if Starbucks were to pull out of Saudi Arabia tomorrow, other entities would open up segregated coffee shops, and the net result - Saudi men drinking their coffee in no-girls-allowed areas - would be the same.

Posted by: marion at June 6, 2007 3:04 PM

I had/have the same fantasy too, Shinobi. I like to imagine all the women in Saudi Arabia, native and foreign, ripping off their abayas and yelling "Fuck this shit!" just before they start firing away.

Posted by: Rebecca at June 6, 2007 4:12 PM

There are a few outspoken Saudi women in the Kingdom. TV journalist Buthanya Nassar:

In past posts, I've talked about being placed under 'protective custody' by the Saudi Mutaween for 12 hours. Also, I've been pulled over 4 times and had my vehicle searched and certain items confiscated for religious impropriety. (mainly CDs and a few cameras) Whenever traveling inside the Kingdom... always remove the covers of your CD cases or only take the ones without explicit details on the actual disk. One officer misinterpreted my Beethoven's 'Eroica' as 'Erotica' on the CD. Luckily his partner was a fan of Beethoven and they just took the compact disk.

Also, I've posted references to driving on the 'Christian Bypass' or the 'Christian Highway' in the past. It is the road all nonbelievers must take when driving from Ta'if to Jeddah, because we are getting to close to Mecca and Medina. My next post will a typical sign in S.A.

Posted by: Joe at June 6, 2007 5:49 PM

Here is a typical sign while driving in Saudi Arabia:

Posted by: Joe at June 6, 2007 5:50 PM

> and yet people do not get
> upset with Starbucks

Good question, and thank you for asking, I hadn't thought much about it. Up until the release of Mandela (88? 91?), divestment from South Africa was all the rage. Maybe we should do some more of that. Starbucks isn't a particularly deserving target for starters, but they're known for their sensitivity to cultural vibes.

Posted by: Crid at June 6, 2007 9:18 PM

The thing about Joe's sign is that English is the only other language on there... Apparently it's really important to them that we know that things are different over there. I regard this as telling.

Posted by: Crid at June 6, 2007 9:19 PM

And yet we hear time and again that it is offensive to suggest that in general, Saudi men should not be allowed to join our society. I'm not against allowing Arab Muslims as a group to join our society, but there is nothing that men like these can contribute to our society that is worth what they'll take out of it with behavior like this. Let these misogynistic barbarians stay right where they are.

Posted by: MikeT at June 7, 2007 9:11 AM

From what I've experienced of these guys, they're like spoiled babies, and they get on everybody's nerves, both men and women. If they do want to move to North America, they really should be put in some kind of boot camp that will mature them emotionally from the age of 3, which is where it all stopped for them. All women are their mommies that exist to serve them, and other boys are there to take their toys away and compete for mommy's love. gag

Posted by: Chrissy at June 10, 2007 7:08 AM

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