Visitors to Saudi Arabia are often bewildered or irritated after their first-hand look at the practice of gender-separation by commercial establishments. It is almost mandatory that most restaurants and cafes would have a ‘singles' section for males only, and a ‘family' section to separate those who patronise their eateries. The usual practice is to isolate each section from the other, either by designating different floors or different areas for each section. At times it can be a nuisance even to those accustomed to such an absurd practice.
It was the day before the last Haj, and Jeddah was eerily silent. None of the hustle and bustle associated with this busiest of cities. The streets were nearly deserted of traffic, as millions were gathering themselves on their way to Arafat to perform Haj, while the few that remained had either flown to foreign destinations or were simply enjoying their time off work.
The day started pleasant and cool. And so it seemed a perfect morning to take a drive around town, unfettered by the throng of traffic and unnerving drivers we are so accustomed to. My wife and my son made my company as we took a casual drive by the coastline. On the way back, we stopped by a well-known international cafe to enjoy breakfast.
There were two entrances, one for families and the other for singles. As we walked into the family section, we were not impressed by the confined space within the tiny premises, nor by the claustrophobic curtains and shades that closed the outside in and left us with the feeling that we were completely boxed in.
Not wanting to spend our time in a jail-cell like confinement, we placed our order and asked the clerk to bring our breakfast over to the singles section where we were going to be seated. That area was well spaced out and with large windows opening out onto the street. The view was pleasant and cheery and there was hardly a soul in there from which one could expect any trouble.
The clerk somewhat flustered with my request, told me that that area was set aside for singles. "Don't worry," I assured him. "Any single man trying anything out of line would have me to deal with. You just go ahead and get our orders ready. Leave the rest to me." Noticing his reluctance, I asked him firmly if there was any law in the books preventing us from being seated where we chose. And I was certainly not going to subject our presence of mind to a cramped atmosphere. I could understand preventing singles from invading family sections, but the reverse held no logic. My wife by this time began fidgeting nervously, while my son cooly distanced himself.
I continued. "Listen, It's OK. I assure you I will take care of my family. And you don't have to worry. It is my decision and I don't believe there would be any trouble. People are not animals, and that includes singles. And if one happens to get out of line, I will quickly put an end to it. Besides there are no patrons in the single section yet, and so we should not expect any trouble," I reassured him.
"But sir, maybe the religious police" he stammered, leaving his sentence uncompleted as his fellow workers stood by taking it all in. His demeanour as he blurted out those words failed to disguise the fear and unease probably evoked by some previous traumatic moment. "What? You are going to tell me they will raid this place and arrest you all just because my family and I are enjoying an early morning breakfast in a cheery atmosphere? If you are concerned about that and I can understand your fears, I'll assure you that if they happen to come by and make trouble I will absolve you of all responsibility and deal with them on my own. We are not committing any sins or vices, and have nothing to fear."
He finally gave in as we went over to the singles section and seated ourselves. It was indeed a much more pleasant place to enjoy our breakfast. And after we were served, I noticed from the corner of my eye the waiters were discreetly leaving the premises one by one. They simply did not want to get busted.
Amusing as it was, I wondered. Is it not time to bring down these unnatural barriers? We perform our annual Haj in mixed company, males and females pray at the holy mosques in close proximity and full view of each other, we travel on airplanes un-segregated, and yet we cannot sit and break bread in proximity of each other as civilised people without the fear of hassle or annoyance?
Are we such an uncivilised lot?
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.