In Riyadh and in Jeddah, though not in a few more liberal places such as Qatif, the clerics—who always opposed female participation in the elections—have stopped the new female local councillors from sitting in the council chambers with men.But to clerical consternation, (veiled) women now operate the tills in Ikea, a Swedish furniture outlet, in a poorer part of Riyadh, and men and women queue in mixed aisles.
At the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology outside Jeddah, male and female students attend the same lectures and mingle freely.Architects of new office blocks locate male and female toilets on the same floor.Most Saudi women have yet to take the liberties their Iranian counterparts do with the veil.
“Parents would object if I didn't cover my face,” says a primary school headmistress who longs to remove it.
But growing numbers of high-school girls are donning headscarves only, no matter that their elders consider that scandalous.In Jeddah, a more liberal port city, seamstresses design abayas with bright colours and women smoke water-pipes out of doors.But worryingly, King Abdullah's incremental reforms seem to be stalling and even going to reverse under his successor, King Salman.His young son, Muhammad, who operates most of the levers of power, says he is anxious to increase Saudi productivity, and to lower birth-rates, by getting women out of the home and into the workplace.But even so he seems nervous of confronting the religious establishment, on whom the Al Saud rulers depend for legitimacy.
Many of Abdullah's reformers have been shifted; and a host of hardliners are back.The only female minister, in the education ministry, was dismissed soon after Salman took the throne.Four women who publicly defied the still unreformed ban on female driving were barred from contesting local elections.Shoppers in Jeddah report that the religious police are back, demanding that department stores black out any glimpse of unveiled women on their packaging.One executive at an international financial-services firm says that the snoops carried out three spot-checks on her office last year to check for signs of the sexes mingling.She is once again being forced to enter through side-entrances when visiting clients, while her male counterparts go through the front door;and they have to travel to meetings in separate cars.
In the new, more conservative environment, perhaps the best hope for women is that the country might rediscover its own traditions.
A senior official admires footage of the Saudi state's founder, Abdulaziz, holding court in 1930s Mecca, while women riding on horseback bring their wares to market.At Jeddah's annual festival, the organisers display the colourful costumes women used to wear before the puritans imposed the black abaya of the central desert on the whole country.Most striking of all is the Prophet Muhammad's own requirement that women and men perform the pilgrimage to Mecca together;and that when women go round the Kaaba, Islam's holiest place, they show their face.Saudi Arabia's new rulers might take note.