After years of bans and restrictions by the religious police, young people can now celebrate this day. The word love is no longer taboo. The kingdom’s newspapers offer tips on gifts and restaurants. Yet, despite the overture, repression remains, especially for women.
Riyadh (AsiaNews) – After years of bans, repression and raids by the religious police, Saudis will be able to celebrate Valentine’s Day, the day of lovers, freely and openly for the first time this year.
Unthinkable just a few years ago, now the main newspapers in the ultra-conservative Wahhabi kingdom, such as Arab News, are offering lists of gifts as well as listings of restaurants, in Riyadh and Jeddah, where couples can spend a romantic evening.
Until recently, Valentine’s Day was ‘haram,’ prohibited, a sin according to the precepts of Islam. Now Words like love if not lust are no longer taboo and shops exhibit flower arrangements, gifts (especially gold and jewels) and the classic chocolates, a must for the occasion.
The change began two years ago, to a great extent thanks to a prominent Saudi figure who called Valentine’s Day a “positive social event”.
Until then store owners had to hide the iconic red roses, like some kind of illicit substance to sell under the counter, to avoid raids by the religious police.
Restaurants turned couples away unless they could prove that they were married, whilst the authorities pressured restaurateurs into refusing to book for birthdays and anniversaries.
This year, Saudi Arabia’s main newspapers list the best places to party, whilst the old adage that “the way to someone’s heart is through their stomachs” seem to rule the restaurant guide.
Offers fit every wallet. In Riyadh people can choose, among others, the Japanese restaurant with a “romantic" atmosphere, the high-end eatery on the top of the Al-Faisaliah tower, or the Armenian diner with live outdoor music.
Still, despite the partial opening of Saudi society, widespread sexism continues to burden women, seen primarily as wives and mothers.
Indeed, sex outside of marriage remains a criminal offence, and “Women live in terror,” said Samirah, still unwilling to give her full name.
Modern romance is not easy for men either. Nasser, a 25-year-old professional, noted that one of his friends was caught kissing his girlfriend last year inside a private booth in a Riyadh restaurant. When the manager saw this, he started filming them whilst shouting: "This is haram!" (prohibited).