Why Do Muslim Men And Women Eat Separately In Saudi Arabia?

For more than 30 years, men and women were required by law to enter, sit, and eat in separate seating sections when dining at Saudi cafés and restaurants.

Then at the end of December 2019, all that suddenly changed, and gender restrictions in restaurants were lifted.

Today for practical reasons, eateries in the kingdom are no longer required to keep men and women apart.

The Wall Of Gender Segregation Has Tumbled Down At Macdonald’s And All Restaurants In The Kingdom

Thankfully, however, many still choose to do it. 

But, I was curious. Why in the first place did Saudi Arabia feel the need to segregate men and women in public restaurants? 

The answer is because of Islamic Sharia law and respect for established Saudi customs and traditions. 

So, Why In General Do Muslim Men And Women Eat Separately In Saudi Arabia?

New Mixed Seating Café In Al Khobar

Islam requires that non-related men and women maintain appropriate social distancing at home and in public to respect women, their families, and to protect modesty (Hayya). Also, women themselves feel uncomfortable removing head covers (Hijab) and the face veil (Niqab) in front of strange men in public places. And, it eliminates the possibility of sexual harassment and assaults on women.

On balance, though, lifting the restrictions is probably not a bad thing. Today, a restaurant owner in the kingdom now has the choice to set up his establishment as he sees fit. 

Also, female customers and men with families are now able to eat in cafés and restaurants that were once previously limited to single men only. 

Today, anyone that feels uncomfortable eating in front of non-related men or women should simply avoid eating in such places. 

So, What Does Islam Say About Non-Related Men And Women Sitting And Eating Together?

Shaikh Khalid Yaseen Discusses Reasons For Gender Segregation In Islam 3:26 Mins

Clearly, in Islam, the fact of men and women who are not related and who share the same physical space is not prohibited by the Sharia law.

It is also not forbidden for them to dine in the same physical locations. 

However, Islam prefers men and women to minimize social mixing as much as possible in public.

Mixing in public is permissible. For practical purposes, men and women are permitted to intermingle in the marketplace, in shopping centers, and out and about in public.   

However, the strict prohibition exists for men and women to meet in seclusion in a closed or locked room/space that no one else can enter. 

In this space, Islam also prohibits them from sharing intimacies,  unlawfully removing clothing, (Hijab), touching one another, having physical contact, and jeopardizing one’s modesty and dignity in any way whatsoever.  

So, If It Isn’t An Islamic Prohibition, Why Were Men And Women Separated In Public Restaurants In The First Place?

Shaikh Zakir Naif Explains Why Muslim Women And Men Are Segregated In Islamic Public Talks

The Shariah Law, the law of both Islam and Saudi Arabia, forbids the intermingling of (unrelated) men and women in specific places if there is isolation, overcrowding, and where women are overly revealing themselves to men in casual ways.

Getting close up to the opposite sexes in these situations opens the door to certain temptations (Fitnah) that naturally leads to arousal of sexual desires and ultimately to indecent or immoral acts (Zina). 

The Quran Clearly States How Non-Relative Men Should Communicate With Women 

The appropriate attitude of men to women is given by Allah (SWT) in the Quran in the following verse. 

Islam Instructs Muslim Men to Speak To Non-Related Women Behind A Partition Or Screen

Click here to listen to and to read the Surah Al Ahzab 33:53 

The understanding here is that Muslims and believing men should not look at women directly nor enter into their private spaces.

Instead, if they have to speak or ask any questions to a woman, they should do it from behind a screen.

A Hadith Revealing The Correct Proximity Of Men And Women

Also, in a Hadith by Abu Hurayrah (RA) who narrated that Prophet Mohammed (SWT) when speaking about the mosque prayer times said, 

Muslim Men In The First Rows At The Mosque

The understanding here is that the first rows are best for men because they are closest to the prayer reciter (Imam) and the reward of the prayer and furthest away from the women (Fitnah).

Likewise, the last rows (in prayer)  are best for women since they receive the reward of concealing themselves out of the sight of men and by avoiding the temptation (Fitnah) of standing in the first row. 

However, the best rows for women are the same as for men (i.e. the first) if women are located in separate prayer areas.

Muslims understand from this that men and women should also maintain correct forms of social distancing when they are in public.

Saudi Customs, Tradition And Attitudes Dictate Gender Segregation 

Muslim Men And Women In Proximity At The Kaba, The Haram Mosque, Mecca

Of course, at home or in cafes and restaurants close family members eat together and don’t need to be separated especially if they are closely related.

This means that brothers and sisters, mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, uncles, aunts, are the permissible (Mahram) relations.  

The genders only need to be separated in the presence of unrelated strangers. 

The Reality Of Gheerah or Protective Jealousy In Family Relations

Feelings Of Gheerah In Muslim Men Are Encouraged

Even though today there is longer any legal requirement to separate the sexes in public places, Saudi customs, and traditions that keep men and women apart will always prevail. 

This is because of the phenomenon called Gheerah. The closest word in English is the feeling of protective jealousy.  

The best way I can describe the feeling of Gheerah is the way a concerned brother might feel for his young virgin sister in the presence of older interested non-related males. 

It is a feeling of concern and of wanting to protect her from the excesses of attention and possible danger that might result. 

It is not a feeling of pure jealousy, rather that the object of my feelings belongs to me only and I do not want to share it with anyone else. 

For Muslims and in Saudi Arabia in particular, this kind of unsettled and protective hotness for men occurs concerning wives, sisters, and female members of the family.

It is based on ethics and a wanting to honor and to preserve the family name. 

Allah (SWT) Orders Men To Look After Women

In the Quran, Allah (SWT) establishes that men are in control of women, the means, and material spending. 

Men Are In Charge Of Women Surah An Nisa 34Opens in a new tab.

Also, Allah (SWT) orders men to look after and protect their families in this life and from the hellfire of the next. 

O you who have believed, protect yourselves and your families from a Fire whose fuel is people and stones. 

At Tahrim 66:6Opens in a new tab.

In Islam, Men Protect, Closely Guard And Are Responsible For His Households

Men Are Custodians of Women And Children And Guards To The Gates Of Hell

Men feeling Gheerah or protective jealousy for their female family members is commendable in Islam.

Allowing strange men to get informally close to wives and daughters is considered a great weakness, especially amongst the Bedouin tribesmen. 

The man who does not appear to display feelings of Gheerah is considered weak (Dayyuth) in Saudi society and from an Islamic point of view is acting sinfully and contrary to Islam. 

However, Gheerah should not be shown to excess, by becoming overly suspicious, bullying or cruel in relation to female family members.

Islam however, does expect men to encourage and enforce the proper covering of women with Islamic clothing and headwear (Hijab), to the correct separation of the sexes and to prevent unacceptable forms of intermingling between his wives and daughters to other unrelated men. 

Versatile Muslimah Explains Gheerah Beautifully Mashallah!

Ibn Qayyim Al Jawziyya On Gheerah

Ibn Qayyim (RA)  said that ‘The basis of the Islamic religion is Gheerah. The person without it has no religion at all. This is because Gheerah protects the heart, energizes the body, and protects the Muslim from evil and lewd behavior. 

The absence of Gheerah kills the heart, the body dies and there is no more protection even from the smallest of evils. 

Gheerah is to the heart what the immune system is to the body. If the body can no longer fight off viruses and sickness, energy will be depleted, strength disappears and sickness takes hold.

Likewise, because of the lack of Gheerah in the heart, the Muslim can no longer protect himself, and eventually, it will destroy him. 

Sheikh Assim Al Hakeem Explains Al Dayooth

Prophet Mohammed (SWT) On Gheerah

The Prophet (SAW) said, 

Three types of people will never enter Paradise 1. The weak one (Dayyuth). 2. Women who resemble a man in their way of dress, and 3. The people addicted to alcohol.

Al Nisai, Ahmad.

When asked what a weak one (Dayyuth) meant, the Prophet (SAW) replied, 

The one who does not care who enters into his wife.

Conclusion

The attraction between a man and a woman is very powerful and should not be underestimated. Even religious people can be tempted and begin to look outside their marriages.

Evil finds a way into the heart as soon as men and women come together in close proximity.

Free mixing of the sexes corrupts and can result only in many problems.

Click the links below to read 5 anonymous personal stories of men and women who have reaped the disastrous results of easy-open relations between the sexes.

  1. True Tales Of Muslim Men And Women -Embarrassing MomentsOpens in a new tab.
  2. Social Mixing At Home Causes Husband To Cheat On His WifeOpens in a new tab.
  3. A Father’s Infidelity Makes His Daughter Hate All Men
  4. A Manager Gets Infatuated With A Female CoworkerOpens in a new tab.

Related Questions

Is Dating Allowed In Saudi Arabia? No, Muslims don’t date and marriages are arranged by family members. Saudi mothers match potential brides for their sons and Saudi fathers find grooms for their daughters. Marriage between members of the same tribe is still common. However, with the internet, some men and women date secretly, but when it becomes public it brings disgrace and shame to the families. 

What’s It Like Being A Woman In Saudi Arabia? Good Saudi families treat their women well. They eat, dress well, live comfortably, have money, accessories, are pampered, spoiled, and cared for by male family members and husbands. In public, women are highly respected, not harassed nor molested in any way. Women, however, are subject to the male guardian system where abuses have occurred. Today, changes are happening and the Saudi government has granted women increasingly more rights and freedoms. 

Are Women Forced To Wear The Headscarf (Hijab) And Face-Veil (Niqaab) Women are not forced to wear Saudi Islamic clothing, but there is social pressure to do so. The cloak (Abaya), headscarf, and face covers are the acceptable forms of dress for women in public and a conservative Islamic society. Expectations today are relaxing and new female dress trends are emerging. However, under the cloak (Abaya) and face-veil (Niqaab) women dress in the clothes they see fit and wear as much makeup as they please. 

Useful References and Further Information 

  1. Saudi Arabia Ends Gender Segregation In RestaurantsOpens in a new tab.-BBC.com
  2. Tearing Down The WallOpens in a new tab.-Arab News
  3. Why Do Men And Women Eat Separately In Saudi Arabia?Opens in a new tab.-Quora.com
  4. Eating Out At Mixed Gender RestaurantsOpens in a new tab.-Dar Al- Ifta Al Missiyah
  5. Evidence Prohibiting of Mixing of Men and WomenOpens in a new tab.-Islam Q&A 
  6. Hadith By Abu HurayrahOpens in a new tab.-HadeethEnc.com 
  7. What is Gheerah?Opens in a new tab. – Wikipedia
  8. What Are Saudi Men Really Like?Opens in a new tab.-insidesaudi.com
  9. All You Need To Know About Saudi Arabic CoffeeOpens in a new tab.-insidesaudi.com
  10. Surah At Tahrim 66Opens in a new tab.-The Holy Quran.com
  11. Surah An Nisa 4:34Opens in a new tab. -The Holy Quran.com

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Mohammed Francis

I am a UK national, a college teacher, father of 3, writer and blogger.

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