Friday, 7 December 2012

Woman in Man Only Cafe!

Where should I wait? is a question I've asked myself on a couple of occasions as the only woman in a man only cafe in Riyadh?

Why am I in a singles (man only) cafe?
Ordering food or coffee usually. 

Why don't I go to a place with a family section?
Because there isn't one nearby.

My activities in Riyadh have required traversing the city in various directions at varying hours of the day and when I first started cruising across town in the back seat of a taxi I noted with just a teensy bit of frustration that Riyadh's suburbia had a serious lack of options catering for a woman's needs, more specifically family sections for those "Crikey's I could do with a coffee and a bite to eat! moments or the more delicate 'I just need to use a loo' activities.

Although Riyadh is going through some serious urban spread right now with popular franchise establishments popping up beside the main highways along with the much demanded housing, many of them are still singles only - with the possible exception of McDonalds.

But when one has the beginnings of a headache from lack of sustenance or requires a feminine convenience more immediately than later, driving off in search of a Golden Arch is not always an option so the man in the driver seat, (who at the moment is not Mr Noor because he's back home visiting the wife), is instructed to slow down at the nearest local establishment featuring food and beverage signs to assess if there may be a family section.

When it's obvious women are meant to stay home to eat and drink the driver happily says, 'Maybe the next place ma'am', and begins to drive off while the women in back gets a touch angsty because Bugger It, she wants coffee!  And who the heck designed this city not to have family sections out where most of the families live!  The driver, registering female angst, stops and does not comment as said female fights her abaya out of the back seat and heads off into the male only domain of the place he was about to leave.

Can women order from places without family sections?
How do you do that?
Saudi women know that entering a male (singles) only cafe or diner on their own is frowned on so generally don't attempt to go into the place.  They will, however, catch the attention of the wait staff, usually by signalling to them through the window or after opening the door enough to wave at them, so the staff come out to take their order.

Being, on occasion, an obnoxious westerner who goes through phases when she can't see any reason why she should hang about outside, I simply walk up to the counter and ask if I can order.
To date, most wait staff have said yes.

Where I wait for my order can differ depending on the shop, the time of day, the number of men present or my steely determination.

Initially I simply wait at the counter till instructed otherwise.
Some wait staff, in response to my presence say, ''I'm sorry ma'am but you have to go outside and we will come and bring your order', which is somewhat irritating mainly because it makes you feel like a second class human.  Granted, this is usually when the store is busy and more than a few Saudi blokes are in situ or the perceived risk of a Muttawa drive by is high.

While loitering outside a cafe because femaleness is obviously far to germy to be inside waiting for takeaway coffee, one can, if they're going through a negative phase, begin to wish men had to wait out in the heat covered in a black garment.  Glaring at men seated indoors has been known to occur.

As always, being a well balanced Kiwi, one should remember the more positive experiences here in Saudi at men only coffee shops and there are quite a few.

One early weekend morning the establishment I entered was completely empty except for the two service staff going through their store opening routine.  They told me to have a seat and enjoy my coffee indoors because there wouldn't be any Saudi male coming round for hours - they'd all still be in bed.

At another men only diner (and for some reason most shwarma places are men only) in the middle of a hot summers day the waiter asked, 'Where is your car? presuming I would be waiting in it and he could bring my order once it was ready.  When I said I came in a taxi and pointed it out he said, 'Wait inside ma'am' and directed me to a spot near the door, in the shade, out of harms way.  I'm presuming the idea of a lone female sitting in a stationary taxi with unrelated driver is a worse evil than lone woman waiting for her order in a male only shop.  Whatever his reasons, it's nice when you meet service staff who are pleasant and thoughtful.

At another male only eatery I asked if I could use the toilet!  Well, perhaps "Where's the toilet, I need to use the toilet!" could more aptly be described as a desperate demand than a request.  My Kegels efforts went west many moons ago and the thought 'I ought to do something about that' only sporadically crosses my mind.  Usually at moments of full bladder desperation.  The staff must have registered the fact that 'No' wouldn't be a good answer because they said, 'Of course ma'am' as I raced on passed and shut the door.

And during one of Riyadh's blustery winter nights with rain threatening, the stars aligned to leave an acquaintance and I standing outside our locked school with a taxi 'On the way'.  We decided to head for the large coffee cup sign down the street to find this place only catered to men, all of whom were conversing while tucked up nice and warm inside.

The place did, however, have an area of sheltered outdoor seating and it was to one of these tables we headed to wait for the taxi just as the rain started to fall.   The wait staff came out and we explained our plight.  He said, 'No problem'.  He brought us cushions for the hard plastic seats and asked us what hot drink we'd like.  While enjoying our brew another male type arrived and a discussion ensued between him and the waiter, complete with gesticulating in our direction, and the words 'woman, why, and taxi' being bandied about. (Both being Arabic students we utilised this situation to test our Arabic language knowledge).  We deduced the discussion was about us and this was confirmed when the waiter came back to check if we were happy and my friend asked if we should wait elsewhere (though we had no idea where) and he said, No! You are fine. Some men here are crazy!

Though most places will serve a woman, at a few male only diners the bloke in charge will begin hollering at you the moment your hand touches the door and before your foot passes over the threshold, 'Man only, Man only', while waving you away, which is an extremely unwelcoming carry on.   Such performance only serves to get your back up and can bring on a negative phase.

Fortunately such performance hasn't been met often.
The most recent occasion was an extremely warm summer evening and Hubster was with me.  As we don't own a car we had been dropped off by the taxi and were walking, taking in the views of Riyadh at night.  We got a bit peckish but the only eateries we could see nearby were men only.  We stopped at one to order a bite to eat with the intention of catching a taxi home to consume our feast.  There was a space just inside the door and I decided to stand in the cool out of the way because the heat outdoors was getting uncomfortable, while Hubster joined a queue to make our order.

The duty manager began hollering and waving me back out the door.  Hubster had a 'discussion' with him that went something like this:

H - Stop shouting at my wife.
M - She cannot be in here.  Man only. Go to a family section.
H - Where is your family section?
M - We have no family section. This store man only. 
H - So how can she go to the family section if you don't have one?
M - Man only. She must wait outside.
H - She's not waiting outside.  It's hot outside.
M - She cannot be in here with single men.
H - There are single men outside.  You want her waiting outside with all the single men out there?  While I'm in here?  Don't be ridiculous!
M - Sir, women cannot be here. 
H - Then stop shouting and hurry up and get our order.

As we were leaving a young Saudi man ushered his wife through the door and she went and stood in the spot I'd just vacated.  Milliseconds later, the hollering started again.  We had to smile.

Regardless of how you are welcomed (or not) to place an order at a male only diner or cafe the service staff do try to get the order filled immediately.  Women aren't generally left to hang around in such circumstances so where ever you choose, or are directed, to wait it almost certainly won't be for long.

Ka Kite,

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