RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — The course of true love never did run smooth. While applicable the world over, Shakespeare’s words are particularly true in swiftly changing Saudi Arabia.
Long forbidden, dating has arrived in the ultra-conservative Gulf kingdom with some Saudis meeting and marrying without the help of relatives. Well-heeled millennials meet via Tinder, Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram.
While most restaurants still separate men and women into sections for men and “families,” young couples are increasingly appearing in public together in a handful of cafes and other eateries.
…Much of Waleed’s “love relationship” with his girlfriend has taken place online. The pair finally met in person in Egypt, where gender mixing is more accepted than in Saudi Arabia, long dominated by a puritanical form of Islam that has been challenged recently by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s push toward a more moderate interpretation of the religion.
“Our culture here, they make love a sin,” Waleed said. Because sex and romantic love remain highly controversial subjects in the kingdom, interviewees spoke to NBC News on condition of anonymity, and pseudonyms have been used.
Waleed is an outlier in Saudi Arabia, where many marriages are still set up by families and where couples sometimes don’t meet in person before getting engaged.
While there have been noticeable social changes recently, men and women who are not closely related still traditionally don’t mix, and some avoid even looking at an unrelated person of the opposite sex. Girls and boys are educated separately, and workplaces that employ women are nominally segregated.
So meeting, dating and getting married can be a treacherous obstacle course. Secrecy is the norm, particularly when it comes to sex.
“The elephant in the room is that everybody engages in it, but nobody talks about it,” says Lulwa, an aspiring filmmaker who wears bright red lipstick and lets her headscarf slip off when she thinks she can get away with it.
Lulwa, 27, bridles at a deep-seated sexism in Saudi society that she says reduces women to their reproductive functions, even among some members of her liberal circle in which the genders mix and alcohol is sometimes served at parties.
…Omar, 26, is candid about sex, a subject that looms over any discussion about how men and women interact. The issue is a complicated tangle of customs and morals, with many Saudis viewing women and their behavior as “a risk to tribal honor,” Omar says.
This affects the way they act, including in bed, he and others tell NBC News. Because Saudi women are expected to be virgins when they marry, many opt not to have vaginal intercourse and instead engage in other types of sex when dating, Omar says.
He [A U.S.-educated engineer, Omar] is also tired of what he calls the secrecy and “hypocrisy” of Saudi society, with so many peers pretending they aren’t dating and sleeping with people.
One problem for single people like him, he says, is that there is “no place built for socializing,” so people can’t easily meet and relationships are carried on largely via social media.
“I would like the company, but I don’t want a relationship on a screen,” he says.
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A lot of that sounds like what American gender complementarians promote for single American Christians (segrating the sexes and so on), and I suspect that is one reason so many single Christians who desire marriage are still single into their mid 30s and older