Many shopping malls in Saudi Arabia ban or restrict youths who are not accompanied by their families from entering them in an attempt to protect female shoppers from harassment.“We have orders not to allow single men in to prevent harassments,” Mohamed, a security man at one of the major shopping malls in the Red Sea city of Jeddah told Al Arabiya. “Not all youths are like that, but we have the ability to distinguish those who might cause trouble.”Several youths have expressed their resentment at this custom, and some are in tears when confronted with the banned.
“They would say, ‘I am Saudi like you. Everywhere they tell me I am not allowed because it’s for families. Where am I supposed to go?’” Mohamed said.The decision to ban youths from malls is not a result of state law. But since malls are private property, owners can decide whom to allow in, said Abdullah Mashghan, manager of al-Andalus Shopping Center.“Usually the administrations of malls ban or allow youths based on the magnitude of the troubles they cause and the complaints made by families or girls,” he told Al Arabiya.However, Mr. Mashghan said, the bans are not absolute rule and it depends on age and appearance as well as the youths’ reasons for going into the mall.“If there are activities for youths, we allow them in,” he said. “Otherwise, there are only three or four stores that are of interest to single men, so why should we allow all youths all the time?”Mr. Mashghan said that he would only allow youths without restrictions if a law was drafted that stipulated penalizing anyone who misbehaves in the mall.“If there are strict laws that penalize youths who harass girls, we will guarantee that no problems happen,” he said.Abdul Aziz al-Dakheel, assistant professor of sociology at King Saud University, agreed with imposing laws that regulate the behavior of shoppers at malls.“If there is a law, all youths—whether men or women—will be relieved,” he told Al Arabiya. “Set rules, let people do what they want, then penalize offenders.”Mr. Dakheel said that orders to ban single youths from malls are not issued by the malls’ administrations, but rather by the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, also known as the moral police.“This is wrong,” he said. “They cannot act preemptively. When the action happens you impose a penalty and not the other way round.”Mr. Dakheel said that it was not fair to screen youths entering malls in order to decide who enters and who doesn’t. “This will backfire, and youths who are prevented will harbor feelings of resentment and will keep wondering why they are discriminated against even though they are Saudi citizens,” he said.The youth screening/banning system is applied all over the Kingdom even though the degree with which it is observed differs from one region to another depending on how conservative the region is. It is specifically observed on weekends and public holidays when families flock to shopping malls.
By MOHAMED JAMAL AND SONIA FARID