Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

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SAUDI ARABIA: Coffee and a strip search?

February 7, 2008 |  8:31 am

A businesswoman discussing issues over a cup of coffee with her male colleague in a Starbucks sounds like a cliché anywhere in the world. Well, not exactly in Saudi Arabia, where women are banned from mixing with men who are not related to them by blood or marriage. Recently, a 40 year-old Saudi executive on a business trip in the capital, Riyadh, was detained for several hours and strip-searched by the religious police for daring to have coffee alone with her male colleague in public, according to local media.

This is a small illustration of how complicated it remains for women to be active members in the ultra-conservative Saudi society today. The most flagrant restrictions include prohibiting women from driving cars or from traveling without permission from their male guardians. The incident comes as a U.N. human rights officer makes an unprecedented official visit to the kingdom to assess violence against women.

Saudi Arabia has come month under fire in the last month for its gender equality record. Recently, the world was outraged by the story of a Saudi victim of a gang-rape who was convicted following the assault — for being alone in a car with a man unrelated to her.

Raed Rafei in Beirut