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Saudis in Bikinis By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — On my first evening in Riyadh, I spotted a surreal scene: three giggly black ghosts, possibly young women enveloped in black cloaks called abayas, clustered around a display in a shopping mall, enthusiastically fingering a blouse so sheer and low-cut that my wife would never be caught dead in it. Afterward, I delicately asked a Saudi woman to explicate the scene.

“What do you think the ‘black ghosts’ wear underneath their abayas?” she replied archly.

Saudi women may be regarded in the West as antique doormats covered in black veils, but the women themselves vigorously reject that stereotype. “It hurts when you hear what people say about us, that we’re repressed,” Monira Abdulaziz, an assistant professor, said reproachfully.

“I cover up my body and my face, and I’m happy that I’m a religious girl obeying God’s rules,” a dietician named Lana scolded me after I wrote a typically snide reference to repressed Saudi women. “I can swim and do sports and go to restaurants and wear what I want, but not in front of men. Why should I show my legs and breasts to men? Is that really freedom?”

In Riyadh, several Saudi women offered the same scathing critique, effectively arguing that Saudi women are the free ones — free from sexual harassment, free from pornography, free from seeing their bodies used to market cars and colas. It is Western women, they say, who have been manipulated into becoming the toys of men.

Saudi Arabia is a bizarre place. It has McDonald’s restaurants that look just like those at home except that there is one line for men and one for women. Al Riyadh newspaper has women journalists, but they’re kept in their own room; when a male editor must edit a woman’s copy, he does it by phone. Saudi women wear bikinis — but only in home swimming pools or in all-women pools. They claim all this reflects not repression but a culture they cherish.

“You can’t go to an Indian woman and say, ‘Why are you wearing a sari?’ ” fumed Hend al-Khuthaila, a university professor who was the first female university dean in Saudi Arabia. “You can’t go up to a Western woman and say, ‘Why are you wearing a short dress?’ Well, this is our abaya. This is part of my culture. It’s part of my tradition. It never bothered me.”

Maha Muneef, a female pediatrician, emphasized that Saudi Arabia is progressing, albeit more slowly than many women would like. “My mother didn’t go to any school at all, because then there were no girls’ schools at all,” she said. “My older sister, who is 20 years older than me, she went up to the sixth grade and then quit, because the feeling was that a girl only needs to learn to read and write. Then I went to college and medical school on scholarship to the States. My daughter, maybe she’ll be president, or an astronaut.”

Another doctor, Hanan Balkhy, seemed ambivalent. “I don’t think women here have equal opportunities,” she acknowledged. “There are meetings I can’t go to. There are buildings I can’t go into. But you have to look at the context of development. Discrimination will take time to overcome.”

Dr. Balkhy emphasized that Saudi women want to solve their problems themselves. These days in particular, she said, even liberal Saudis feel on the defensive and are reluctant to discuss their concerns for fear that foreigners will seize upon the problems to discredit their country.

All this created an awkward series of interviews. I kept asking women how they felt about being repressed, and they kept answering indignantly that they aren’t repressed.

So what should we make of this? Is it paternalistic of us in the West to try to liberate women who insist that they’re happy as they are?

No, I think we’re on firm ground.

If most Saudi women want to wear a tent, if they don’t want to drive, then that’s fine. But why not give them the choice? Why ban women drivers and why empower the religious police, the mutawwa, to scold those loose hussies who choose to show a patch of hair?

If Saudi Arabians choose to kill their economic development and sacrifice international respect by clinging to the 15th century, if the women prefer to remain second-class citizens, then I suppose that’s their choice. But if anyone chooses to behave so foolishly, is it any surprise that outsiders point and jeer?


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