Saudi boy meets girl -- via Bluetooth

A woman text messaging

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: As open-minded as Sheikh Waleed might seem to be, his networks have to be a little more conservative, because a good part of the audience is Muslim, and in some countries, Saudi Arabia in particular, very conservatively Muslim. Under Islamic law in Saudi Arabia, unrelated men and women can't mix in public. They can't go to school together. They can't work together in the office. Courtship and marriages are traditionally arranged, but young Saudis are starting to resist, and technology's helping them bend the rules.

From Riyadh, Kelly McEvers explains.


KELLY MCEVERS: In the U.S., Bluetooth is this kind of nerdy way to talk on your phone while you're pacing around the airport. In Saudi Arabia, it's how you cruise guys. The first thing you do is give yourself a handle.

MCEVERS: We are sitting in the back seat of the car. I'm with my friend whose Bluetooth name right now is . . .

PRETTY AND LOOKING: Oh, in Arabic?

MCEVERS: Yeah.

PRETTY AND LOOKING: It means I'm pretty and looking.

Pretty and looking, I'm in the white Lexus, Desperate for your love.

PRETTY AND LOOKING: The more popular phones now, are the ones that signal a Bluetooth message.

This is still a traditional place though, so a girl normally won't send a photo or video of herself by Bluetooth. Instead, it's all about checking each other out and using Bluetooth to exchange phone numbers.

PRETTY AND LOOKING: Oh, we have interest.

The place to be is Thalia street, in the newer part of Riyadh. Women aren't allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, so girls pack themselves in the back seats of cars, hidden behind tinted windows and protected by Indian or Pakistani drivers. The dudes hang out at tables outside Starbucks or Chili's.

PRETTY AND LOOKING: And they're just trying to see who comes, who goes, who's interested, who's not.

The girls definitely run the show. Our heads, faces, and bodies are covered in black, but if we stop our car and stare at a guy long enough, he'll jump into his car and follow. At a stoplight he waves his phone and smiles.

PRETTY AND LOOKING: He's just asking you, do you want the number? He has his Bluetooth on.

MCEVERS: He's holding up his, yeah, he just held up his phone.

PRETTY AND LOOKING: See you want it, my number? That's how it goes. You want my number? Turn it on.

MCEVERS: But you turned it on. Oh.

PRETTY AND LOOKING: See, he just sent. Probably him, Bluetooth. If I say yes, view, that's his number.

Pretty and Looking decides this guy is too young for us. If she does end up finding someone old enough and cute enough, she'll call him and get to know him. After that . . .

RAID QUSTI: The next step would be arranging a place to meet.

That's Raid Qusti. He writes for a liberal, English-language newspaper. He says meeting in person is tricky. That's because malls, restaurants and cafes here are segregated into two sections. The family section, for women and children and husbands, and the bachelor section for single men.

So a guy and a girl on a date have to pretend they're married just so they can sit together, and Qusti says they have to watch out for officials with long beards and flowing robes, known around here as "mutawwa," or the "committee to prevent vice and promote virtue."

QUSTI: Once I was sitting with a friend at Starbucks. There was a guy and a girl who were dragged out from the family section by the vice cops. They didn't have identification to prove that the lady is the man's spouse and they were busted.

MCEVERS: The couple was hauled away in an SUV, and then?

QUSTI: The girl is humiliated. The vice cops would contact her parents. For the guy it's a bit more difficult.

He could spend a night in jail, get searched and interrogated, even beaten, so a lot of times, guys and girls just decide not to meet, to get to know each other online. That's actually OK under Islamic law, says Salman Al-Oadah, a well-known preacher and religious scholar.

SALMAN AL-OADAH: If the matters they are discussing are economic, political, social, what have you, then there is no problem with people discussing those issues as men and women on the Internet.

Al-Oadah once was a spiritual mentor to Osama bin Laden. Now he runs a hugely popular website, Islam Today. He says to keep conversations from getting romantic, young men and women should police themselves. Both conservatives and liberals here agree it's impossible for the government to regulate behavior online and on the phone. In fact, people here say it's technologies like chatting and Bluetooth that eventually will lead to the opening of this traditional society, but the ride won't be totally smooth. Out on the strip again, a new group of Saudi girls teaches me to chair dance, Arab-style, in the backseat.

GIRLS: Yeah, we do it like this, and we do like this.

They've flirted with some guys on Bluetooth, but they haven't given out their phone numbers yet. A pack of cars is following us through slow-moving traffic, so far we haven't seen any vice cops.

GIRLS: Whoa! Hey! Whoa!

MCEVERS: Pretty soon though, it gets ugly. A guy jumps out of his car and tries to break into ours. This could get everyone into huge trouble. The girls say all this segregation has made guys crazy, so now that guys have a chance to meet girls with Bluetooth, they take it too far. Eventually the guys speed away and the girls go back to their lattes. Legal experts here say with every new technology, young Saudis will find ways to get around the law. Like my friends here keep telling me, you just can't control human nature.

GIRLS: Did you see that car, all the cars?

In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, I'm Kelly McEvers for Marketplace.

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