In an echoing, blast-chilled Riyadh mall today, I saw something unusual. At a series of tables outside an up-market cafe — rather than a chain-smoking Saudi dude or a pair of ill-dressed European businessmen looking jet-lagged and confused — I encountered a woman.
Usually relegated to the “ladies section,” where women covered head to to in black are packed into smoked-glass booths with curtains, this gal was instead sitting at one of the outdoor tables, sipping an orange juice. She wore the robe-like abaya and a scarf tightly covered her hair. But — behold — her face was utterly there, smiling and very real.
She tapped on a laptop and sipped more juice. It would be an utterly unremarkable scene anywhere else, but this was Riyadh and thusly cause for heart-beating surprise.
A few minutes later, still off-kilter, I passed a block of shops under construction. On other days Afghan workers trudged in and out, lugging tools. Today, no one was in sight and one of the soaped-over glass doors was thrown open. Among the dusty confusion of plaster, paint buckets, and twisted metal I spied what looked like a pile of women.
We almost never see female bodies here. Advertisement are digitally tweaked to cut off heads or pixelize female shapes. Women can face severe consequences if they are nabbed by authorities with men who are not their relatives, or if they are spotted in public without proper covering. But here, on a day I’d seen a girl uncovered, I thought I’d stumbled on something far more startling.
For a minute, starved for so many months of such geometry, I was confused by the grisly site of familiar curves among the rubble. Soon, though, I realized the forms were the black torsoes of mannequins.
Standing there, I thought back to the gal at the cafe. Whether this was one woman’s rare decision or a sign of some larger shift was impossible to know. The pace of change here is often hard to clock — and it’s always tempting to mistake the excitement of minutes for the reality of long hours.
I resumed my walk, my hard footfalls calling out on the cold marble flooring.