Men only

So she goes into Starbucks in Riyadh, the first Starbucks she’s seen in months; she ignores the flickering eyes of the man behind the counter, the stares of the men in the cafe, she sits down in an armchair – only to have the counter man hiss in her ear “You can’t sit here. Men only.” Oh right – of course; how stupid of me. Men only. Not men only in men’s toilets, but men only everywhere. Men only in the world. Women shoved into nasty little boxes round the back; women shouted at; women told to get out, get out, get out. Women treated like filthy foul sluts for merely existing. Women monitored, watched, glared at, chased, bullied, threatened.

I spent my days in Saudi Arabia struggling unhappily between a lifetime of being taught to respect foreign cultures and the realization that this culture judged me a lesser being…The rules are different here. The same U.S. government that heightened public outrage against the Taliban by decrying the mistreatment of Afghan women prizes the oil-slicked Saudi friendship and even offers wan praise for Saudi elections in which women are banned from voting. All U.S. fast-food franchises operating here, not just Starbucks, make women stand in separate lines. U.S.-owned hotels don’t let women check in without a letter from a company vouching for her ability to pay; women checking into hotels alone have long been regarded as prostitutes.

Why is Saudi Arabia considered ‘moderate’? I keep wondering that. Only yesterday, during some BBC discussion of the kickback matter, the official voice called SA ‘moderate’. What’s moderate about it? It funds global fundamentalism and it treats women like dirt – what exactly is moderate about it? Just a kind of alliance with the US? Is that all? Is that enough? (Answer: no. If that’s all that’s meant, ‘moderate’ is the wrong word. Perhaps more is meant? But what? No direct links with Hizbollah? Is that enough?)

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