RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
In Saudi Arabia, there are rules about how to interact with people of the opposite sex, which can make dating sort of hard or impossible. That could be changing, though. Here's NPR's Jackie Northam.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The White Foam Cafe in Riyadh is a cheery little place with wooden tables and chairs. It has a good reputation for its fair trade coffees and vegan desserts. It's also well-known for something else.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This is one of the really famous dating places here. I dated my fiance lot here.
NORTHAM: This 29-year-old smiles as she remembers the time. She's wearing stylish shoes and an abaya, a floor-length cloak. But her thick, flowing hair is not covered. She doesn't want us to use her name for fear her family would find out.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Before, it was kind of a taboo to be seen with a man who's not your relative.
NORTHAM: She says that doesn't mean people didn't date, but they had to be careful and devise ways to meet. A man would write his phone number on a piece of paper and drop it on the ground near a woman he's interested in. It could get more aggressive, though. This woman recalls several times when a car filled with young Saudi men would pull up next to hers.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And then they would just, like, ask you to open the window. If you don't open, they would go to the driver and fight with him until they force you to take the number. What the hell? You expect me to call you? But they just do that.
NORTHAM: She says it's so much easier now. Many women are in the workforce. There's more mixing between genders. Indeed, as she sips her French press coffee, a young man sitting at the table behind her moves over to talk to three young women sitting at another table.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I've seen girls who are proactive, and if they like a guy, they would go to him. And that's happening a lot right now. Girls are becoming more powerful.
NORTHAM: Others are unsettled by it. A few days later, we spoke to a young man in a different area of Riyadh. He also doesn't want us to use his name. His family would be angry with him for talking to the foreign press.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'm sort of weirded out that girls are more active in pursuing men. You know, I've been catcalled, believe it or not.
NORTHAM: The 26-year-old is wearing a thobe, a long, white gown. He says he's a traditionalist. He's never had a girlfriend. His friends tell him he's old-fashioned.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Girls are encouraging me to get into the dating scene, which is - wow. You know, that's something out of a episode of "Girls" on HBO or something like that, you know. That's not something that happens in Riyadh.
NORTHAM: Riyadh is a famously conservative city. We traveled to a place a little less strict.
(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES)
NORTHAM: Waves roll in from the Red Sea and splash against the corniche here in the western port city of Jiddah. This is where young people will stroll along the waterfront at day's end. Jiddah is a laid-back city with vibrant arts and culture. We met up with 23-year-old Khulood in a cafe. She says she's active on the dating scene. She asked that we don't use her last name just in case her parents find out.
KHULOOD: You can't tell your parents that you're dating someone. It's fine to tell your friends, but not your parents. So always keep it a secret.
NORTHAM: Khulood says she uses Tinder, the dating app. Instead of a photo of herself, she used a picture she painted. Deema Najim, a 21-year-old student and a budding filmmaker, is horrified by the idea of using Tinder.
DEEMA NAJIM: Hell no. (Laughter) No, no, no, no, no, no. I'm really sorry. Like, no offense for anyone, but most of them are players. If I'm going to date, I'm going to seek for someone who's serious.
NORTHAM: Which just goes to show you, it may be more acceptable now, but dating in Saudi Arabia can be just as confounding and complicated as anywhere else in the world. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Jiddah.
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