Rima sits on a chair in an upscale cafe in Riyadh, looks around carefully and sees no one she recognizes, pulls on her electronic cigarette and exhales a cloud of smoke.
“I think smoking in public is part of the exercise of my newly acquired freedoms. I am happy that now I can choose, ”said a 27-year-old Saudi woman who works for a private company in the capital.
Like Western feminists in the early 20th century, at a time of social change in Saudi Arabia, some women adopted cigarettes, shisha pipes or vaping as a symbol of emancipation.
Seeing women who smoke 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 sovereign, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has deployed a range of economic and social innovations to project a moderate and 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, who started smoking two years ago, dismisses concerns about the harmful effects of tobacco, but fears that her family will find out.
She says she is ready for a confrontation.
“I will not tell them that this is the freedom of my personality, because they will not understand that women are free to smoke like men,” said Rima, dressed in a traditional black abaya with embroidery golden matching the hijab that covered her hair. .
Najla, 26, who, like Rima, asked to use a pseudonym, said that despite rapid social change, double standards still exist and that it is still considered “scandal and shame” if women smoked.
The only woman to smoke in the middle of several smoking tables, 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 had been sent to an addiction clinic when her parents learned that she was smoking.
Najla started smoking while she was still a student, and like her, up to 65% of Saudi high school girls smoke secretly, according to a 2015 study by King Abdulaziz University medical school cited by Arab News.
- “Anything goes” –
Despite the limits, in a country where, until just a few years ago, religious police prosecuted and beat women for offenses such as wearing nail polish or leaving a lock of hair escaping from their hijab, the changes made his head spin.
“Most of our customers order shisha. It was something that was totally unimaginable just three months ago, “a Lebanese waiter told AFP at an upscale cafe in northern Riyadh.
Heba, a 36-year-old longtime smoker who was seated at a nearby table, described growing up in a closed country where “everything was forbidden to women”.
“I never imagined being able to smoke shisha in public next to men,” she told AFP.
“Now everything is allowed. Women venture without a hijab, without an abaya and they even smoke in public. “
But even if the kingdom introduced reforms, it was condemned for a brutal repression against dissidents, in particular intellectuals, monks and militants.
In 2018, authorities arrested at least a dozen women activists just before the historic lifting of the decades-long ban on female drivers.
Many detainees accused the interrogators of sexual harassment and torture. Saudi authorities reject the accusations.
“There is no doubt that in terms of personality, there is more freedom,” said Walid al-Hathloul, whose sister Loujain is on trial for allegations of contact with foreign media and diplomats.
“But the reforms for women are part of a public relations campaign to improve the kingdom’s human rights record,” he told AFP.
“The arrest and demonization of activists is proof of this – they are designed so that reforms are not credited to activists,” he said.