Growing up in Saudi, with a predominantly male group of friends was nothing short of an adventure.
Up until its recent flirtation with liberalism, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was known for its ultraconservative governance, a large part of which were strict gender segregation laws. However, it’s important to note that the lifestyle you led depended on a lot of other factors such as which region you lived in, what kind of social circle you were a part of, and of course, your own family dynamic.
The older I got, the more dangerous it became to hang out with my male friends.
I grew up as one of five sisters in a pretty conservative household. Whether it was a symptom of middle-child syndrome or just an innate rebelliousness that was a part of my personality, I had trouble with stereotypically “girly” things.
I didn’t fit neatly into the “girl” box that the society, culture and local interpretation of Islam drew out for me. I liked doing what the “boys” did – playing football, running around in the dirt, climbing things and getting hurt, and chewing loads of gum to see who could spit it further.
I made my first male friend when I was about 8 years old. His name was Ziad, and he was also half-American. We bonded over our love for cats and dinosaurs.
At the time, I was young enough to get away with it.
My father turned a blind eye to the situation for a while, and at the most, we got a few disapproving tuts from passersby when we were out playing in the park. I used to wait for Ziad outside his apartment building at about the same time every evening to catch him on his way back from the mosque. One day, we were sitting on the steps outside his living room window and talking, though I can’t remember what about.
To this day, I regret nothing.
“Shaima!” I looked up to see my father standing a few meters away. Bear in mind, my father only used my real name instead of my nickname “Shimmy” when he was being stern with me. I walked up to him, confused. “I forgot my wallet. Go get it for me.”
I remember thinking back through the day to try and pinpoint what I could have done that upset him, and I couldn’t figure it out. But, as the weeks passed, it started to become starkly clear what the problem was: I was growing up. It happened gradually and then all at once.
The casual tutting started turning into yelling, as well as the occasional attempt at a compassionate lecture. The bottom line was that he was a boy, and I was a girl (could they make it any more obvious?)
It didn’t matter that we were ten years old and enjoyed marveling about how Stegosaurus had a brain the size of a walnut – it was wrong.
My family eventually moved to a different part of the city, and I never saw Ziad again.
Surprise, surprise… I just made new friends. Naturally, some of them were girls, but no matter how much I tried to fit in, I didn’t. They wanted to wax each other’s legs, and do each other’s makeup, and talk about the guys they were secretly meeting up with on the rooftops of buildings so they could make out. I wanted to skateboard, sing in a rock band, and explore abandoned buildings.
The older I got, the more dangerous it became to hang out with my male friends. Aside from hiding from my dad, we’d get chased by the police, and threatened by strangers. A teenager once pulled a gun on me, calling me a slut.
I still thank God for how flat-chested I was.
I had to get creative, and so, I started utilizing one thing almost every little girl grows up doing – I started playing dress-up. I’d leave the house wearing my sweatpants and a band t-shirt under my abaya. Then I’d run into another building, hide in the staircase and stuff my abaya and headscarf into a black Adidas backpack. I’d tie my hair and fold it up into a cap and put on the baggiest hoodie I owned. I still thank God for how flat-chested I was.
Sometimes it felt like we were fighting a battle we could never win. All we wanted was to be normal, and there was nothing normal about the lengths we’d go to so that we could eat a burger together and host burping contests.
If you’re sitting there wondering how I got away with all of it, you should know: I eventually got caught when my father went through my phone. He put me under house arrest for months.
To this day, I regret nothing.
So, Ziad, Muneer, Abdulelah, Hatem, Ammer, Fahad, Tarek, Rami, Tomas, Yazan, Mahmoud, Salman, and Mazin…I just want to say thanks. Thanks for the laughs, the thrills, the music, and the free food.
Most of all, thanks for befriending me despite the risks, and for letting me be myself in a society that always wanted me to be somebody else.
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