Cross-dressing in Saudi Arabia?

Girls are subverting strict limitations on their behavior and appearance in some surprising ways.

Topics: Religion, Broadsheet, Muslim Women, LGBT, Middle East, Islam, Love and Sex,

The New York Times’ two-part series on young love in Saudi Arabia (first from the view of boys, then girls) is a fascinating must-read — but two anecdotes in particular demand mention here. Apparently, many young Saudi women are subverting the strict limitations placed on them by cross-dressing to enter “male spaces” and, what’s more, having “passionate friendships, possibly even love affairs,” with other girls. It’s the religious police’s worst fears realized!

Atheer Jassem al-Othman, an 18-year-old law student, tells the Times’ Katherine Zoepf that two female classmates recently brought in photos of themselves disguised as boys. Zoepf writes:

In the pictures, the girls wore thobes, the ankle-length white garments traditionally worn by Saudi men, and had covered their hair with the male headdresses called shmaghs. One of the girls had used an eyeliner pencil to give herself a grayish, stubble-like mist along her jaw line.

The two girls even went into a store wearing their get-ups and pretended to check out a girl; their impression of leering young men was believable enough to cause the girl to press “her face into the corner of her hijab” in embarrassment. “It’s just a game,” says 18-year-old Sara al-Tukhaifi. But, apparently, it’s a fairly common game; girls will cross-dress with friends and then drive or go places reserved exclusively for men — for instance, the McDonald’s men-only counter — and pray that they manage to elude the religious police.

Somehow, I find it less surprising that — given the tremendous obstacles in courting the opposite sex — some young Saudi women turn to passionate, sometimes sexual, partnerships with other women while in college (at my all-girls college, such girls were called “LUGS,” lesbians until graduation). These same-sex relationships are viewed as a “game,” just like cross-dressing to enter the male sphere, and end as soon as one of the girls is married off.

Now, this report of Saudi girls’ stealth rebellion isn’t good news — ultimately, it is just a “game,” since they aren’t able to actually escape the constraints on their dress and behavior — but it’s the most heartening piece of women’s news to come out of the country in some time.

Tracy Clark-Flory

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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