Going out to a restaurant in Saudi Arabia was quite a unique experience up until this week.
The kingdom, known for being ultra-conservative, previously had rules that require eateries to provide separate entrances and areas for "women and families" and "singles" (aka men dining alone). Even though some local cities had turned the blind eye on the matter, allowing anyone hungry to simply step in and take a chair, the atmosphere wasn't this relaxed across the country.
In a recent turn of events, Sunday witnessed the end of this segregation. From now on and despite the time it will take almost 33 million people to get accustomed to the dismantling of a decades-old rule, unrelated men and women will be able to dine together.
How will the removal of gender segregation in restaurants affect people in the country and what do they think of it? We spoke to a few Saudis about that and here's what they told us.
"I no longer have to sneak around"
"You know when you do something and constantly keep worrying about getting caught for it because it's banned?" Saudi entrepreneur Jana asked rhetorically. "It's the worst feeling ever because it ruins whatever it is you're experiencing. This is exactly how I felt breaking the segregation rule in restaurants with friends and co-workers."
The 27-year-old was never able to make sense of the rule, especially as she always mingled with men as part of her work and when she studied abroad. As the sorting out rule is now out of the way, Jana believes many lives in the kingdom will be changed.
"It's thrilling. I am so relieved I no longer have to sneak around," she told us when asked how the reversal of gender segregation will affect her life.
"Better late than never"
As many are excited for the change to take shape, others thought it took too long for the achievement to happen.
"I honestly don't know what stopped them from making this change years back? I mean they could see all the changes happening in Gulf countries around us and we were still stuck in these little rules that don't make any difference. Anyways, better late than never," Abdullah, a Saudi banker, explained to StepFeed.
The 31-year-old questioned how the change will be implemented given that some restaurants might not want to adhere to the new rule.
He observed that many restaurant owners are also worried about the application of the decision. Whether we're talking about international or local eateries, owners have already spent too much money on designing their businesses according to the rule with special entrances and all.
"I am thrilled our struggle with this is finally over"
The decision doesn't only affect single men and women, as families also could use this opportunity to expand their outings to people not from within the family.
"Imagine, my husband couldn't invite his closest friend out with us as a family. We've known him for years and he's like an uncle to our kids but we never went out for a meal because of this rule," Lamya'a, a Saudi mother of two, explained to us.
The woman said so many people she knew just didn't follow this rule but risked legal problems if they got caught. This is something she and her husband didn't want to do because they would always have their kids with them at restaurants.
"I am thrilled our struggle with this is finally over and I am proud that my country is finally taking steps to reverse rules that aren't based on our religion in any way," Lamya'a said.
Contrary to popular belief, this rule has nothing to do with Islam. It rather stems from a cultural notion that needs time to change. Despite that, many Saudis believe this kind of separation between men and women 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.
"Not everyone in Saudi Arabia wants this"
"We're used to this system and it works better in line with our values. Not everyone in Saudi Arabia wants this because it goes against what we believe in which is that men and women who are not related to each other shouldn't spend time alone together even if it's in public," Fahad, a 25-year-old Saudi graduate, commented.
When we told Fahad the rule doesn't force him to go out with anyone but allows others to practice their personal freedom, he argued that "sticking with the kingdom's traditions is more important than freedom of choice." He also added that people who want to host mixed events could do so at their homes rather than meet up in restaurants.
The man's view is not uncommon in the Gulf nation, where people are often highly criticized for taking part in mixed-gender events.
Regardless, the rule is now applicable in Saudi Arabia. For the first time in decades, men and women will be able to enter public eateries using one door. They will also no longer have to sit in closed booths or segregated areas.
Gender-segregation is still applicable elsewhere in the kingdom
Gender segregation is still upheld in many public spaces in the kingdom; however, the latest decision shatters one of the most visible restrictions in place.
Though the kingdom has been slowly loosening its gender segregation regulations, especially during the month-long events such as Jeddah Season and Riyadh Festival, it's going to take time for some to absorb this change.
The process won't be that easy because until very recently anyone found to be hosting or taking part in any mixed-gender event was punished.
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.