The sight of women smoking in public in Saudi Arabia has become more common in recent months, an unthinkable sight just 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.
These changes have given Rima the courage to smoke in public as she settles in a chair at an upscale Riyadh cafe, looks around carefully, and seeing no one she recognises, drags on her electronic cigarette and exhales a cloud of smoke.
“I feel that smoking in public is a part of exercising my newly won freedoms. I am happy that now that I can choose,” the 27-year-old Saudi who works for a private company in the capital told AFP.
Rima, who started smoking two years ago, dismisses concerns about the harmful effects of tobacco, but is worried her family will find out.”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,” she said.
Najla, 26, who like Rima asked to use a pseudonym, said that despite the rapid social changes, double standards still existed, and that it was still considered a “scandal and disgrace” if women smoked.
The only woman lighting up amid several tables of male smokers, she said she intended to “challenge society” and ignore the occasional dirty looks.
“My rights will be fully respected when my family accepts me as a smoker,” she said, recalling that a friend was sent to an addiction clinic when her parents found out about her smoking.
Najla started smoking while still a school student, and like her, up to 65 per cent of female Saudi high schoolers light up secretly, according to a 2015 study by the medical faculty at King Abdulaziz University cited by Arab News.
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.
Heba, a 36-year-old longtime smoker who sat at a table nearby, described growing up in a closed country where “everything was forbidden to women”.
“I never imagined I would be able to smoke shisha in public next to men,” she told AFP.
“Now, everything is allowed. Women venture out without hijab, without abaya and they even smoke publicly.”
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. (Source: CNA)