Getting Beyond the Veil Isn't Easy in Saudi Arabia

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Sitting in the reception area of a Saudi newspaper office, we do nothing more damning than talk about the weather and the local press.

The security guards eye us suspiciously -- so much so that I avoid crossing my legs to escape the impression of being overly casual with my female interlocutor.

In almost any other country, it would be a routine exchange. In Saudi Arabia, a public meeting like this between a man and a woman could ruin her reputation and besmirch a family's honor. The young woman explains in almost a whisper that we are lucky we can even talk here. Hotel lobbies are a non-starter, she said, since women have been hauled off by the Islamic religious police for talking like this to men.

Fortunately, the space we occupied was not so public that the vice squad could barge in on our professional conversation. And the management had been informed in advance of our not-so-dangerous liaison. But the experience highlighted one of the most striking of this country's singularities -- that half the population is off-limits for the kind of day-to-day contact of most other places in the world.

A modern city of 4 million, Riyadh has a cosmopolitan and sophisticated air, all the more resplendent for the billions of dollars flowing in from the oil price boom. Its wide streets bulge with the latest sports cars. Its shopping malls offer the latest fashions for the capital's elites. Its cafes -- the global brand names -- provide wireless Internet and young men sit there playing the stock market.

But the familiarity stops there, for beneath the surface a system of gender segregation is in force that rigorously separates men from women unless they are close relatives.

Women are removed from the glare of strangers, whether behind the tinted windows of cars, the high walls of houses or the monotone black outfits called abayas that Saudi religion and tradition ordain should cover the face. A man cannot ask a woman in the street for directions, let alone approach her with questions about an issue of the day. Conferences about women's issues are often closed to male reporters.

Occasionally, men in more liberal parts of the country will make an effort to promote their wives' achievements.

A businessman in the Shiite Muslim town of Qatif once invited me to interview his wife, a writer and social activist.

The interview took place amid ritual and protocol reminiscent of scenes from the "1,001 Nights," when holy leaders and caliphs were separated from the world of impurity by curtains and screens.

The meeting occurred in the family's inner sanctum, the home. We could not shake hands, and men presided over the exchange since otherwise there could be a suggestion of impropriety and people would talk.

As a guest, I was being allowed to enter a roomful of women who had gathered in a private space precisely because they expected to be protected from the prying eyes of strange men and the scourge of rumor.

Even when speaking to me, the women held their veils tightly over their faces and kept their eyes to the ground. I too averted my gaze, as uncomfortable as they were. Leaving was a relief.