Like Western feminists of the early 20th century, in an era of social change in Saudi Arabia some women are embracing cigarettes, shisha pipes or vapi
Like Western feminists of the early 20th century, in an era of social change in Saudi Arabia some women are embracing cigarettes, shisha pipes or vaping as a symbol of emancipation. The sight of women smoking in public has become much more common in recent months, an unthinkable prospect before the introduction of sweeping reforms in the ultra-conservative kingdom.
The kingdom’s ambitious de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has rolled out an array of economic and social innovations to project a moderate, business-friendly image. Women are now allowed to drive, attend public sporting events and concerts, and obtain passports without the approval of a male guardian.
Rima, a 27 year old who works for a private company in the capital who started smoking two years ago, dismisses concerns about the harmful effects of tobacco, but is worried her family will find out. She says she is prepared for a showdown.
“I won’t tell them that this is about my personality liberty, because they won’t understand that women are free to smoke like men. I feel that smoking in public is a part of exercising my newly won freedoms. I am happy that now that I can choose,” said Rima, dressed in a traditional black abaya with gold embroidery matching the hijab that covered her hair.
Despite the limitations, in a country where until just a few years ago religious police would chase and hit women for infractions like wearing nail polish or allowing a strand of hair to escape from their hijab, the changes have been head-spinning.
“Most of our women clients order shisha. It’s something that was totally unimaginable just three months ago,” a Lebanese waiter told AFP at an upscale cafe in north Riyadh.
But even as the kingdom has introduced reforms, it has attracted condemnation for a heavy-handed crackdown on dissidents including intellectuals, clerics and female activists. In 2018, authorities arrested at least a dozen women activists just before the historic lifting of the decades-long ban on female motorists. Many of the detained have accused interrogators of sexual harassment and torture. Saudi authorities reject the accusations.