For decades, it used to be illegal (on paper) for men and women to mingle in public in Saudi Arabia. Socially, that has changed in recent years but it wasn't until this month that some kind of legal amendment was brought forth.
On Sunday, Saudi Arabia abolished rules that previously required restaurants to provide separate entrances and areas for "women and families" and another for "singles" (aka men dining alone.) Now, that decision is in the hands of business owners. The news was delivered in a statement by the kingdom's Municipal and Rural Affairs Ministry.
Gender segregation is still upheld in many public spaces in the kingdom; however, the latest decision shatters one of the most visible gender segregation restrictions in place. Restaurants will no longer need to "specify private spaces" for women and families. According to The National, many restaurants and cafés had already been allowing the mixing of the sexes prior to the latest edict. But now, all restaurants can do this without fearing some kind of backlash.
It wasn't that easy two years ago. Saudi Comic Con, the geek convention that garnered much praise when it concluded, was penalized over a "violation," which some claimed came to light due to intermingling between the opposite sexes. At the time, a witness revealed that he saw young men and women talking in one of the dark halls of the venue where Comic Con was being held.
Still, many Saudis believe gender segregation is a religious requirement. This viewpoint was put on display after a local cleric criticized the laws that segregate men and women during prayers in mosques earlier this year.
In a televised interview with the Saudi Broadcasting Corp. (SBC), the former Imam of the Holy Mosque in Mecca, Sheikh Adil Al-Kalbani, explained that this kind of partition didn't exist during the era of Prophet Muhammad and has no root in Islamic tradition.
"His words are right but is our world today the same as the Prophet's era? Are the good morals and decency that were there at that time still here now? Of course not," one Twitter user wrote at the time.
Months later, it seems as though Saudi Arabia took the cleric's words into consideration ... and applied it to restaurants as a start.
These advancements come in line with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030, as he is pushing for positive change within the kingdom. Under it, the country has been easing its gender segregation rules. The kingdom witnessed several "social changes" in that regard when cinemas opened across Saudi Arabia and when Riyadh held its first mixed-gender concert featuring a female singer in 2018. Saudi Arabia has come a long way since as the changes are no longer taking place in social settings but are now set in stone by law.