A se­cret in the fam­ily

Saudi woman’s es­cape is apart­ment, cats

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NATIONAL - MOLLY HENNESSY-FISKE

“At first peo­ple refuse to be­lieve that a strange new thing can be done, then they be­gin to hope it can be done, then they see it can be done — then it is done and all the world won­ders why it was not done cen­turies ago.”

—Frances Hodgson Bur­nett, The Se­cret Gar­den

RIYADH, Saudi Ara­bia — Maha Al­mu­tairi has a se­cret apart­ment.

At 35, like most un­mar­ried Saudi women, she still of­fi­cially lives at home. Her father de­cides what can and can’t hap­pen in his home. De­ci­sions about what she will study, where she will work, all are sub­ject to her father’s per­mis­sion.

Can she have cats? Not any­where in the apart­ment build­ing her father owns, he ruled, even though Al­mu­tairi has long loved res­cu­ing strays and hid­ing them in her room.

Could she travel abroad to study medicine? No, her father said, not with­out a male rel­a­tive to ac­com­pany her. She gave up on be­ing a doc­tor and signed up to study in­te­rior de­sign at a school in Riyadh.

But she has been grow­ing more in­de­pen­dent.

When her father tried to force her into a mar­riage with a man he thought would be a suit­able part­ner, she re­fused.

“It’s my de­ci­sion,” she told him.

Two years ago, af­ter her mother died and Al­mu­tairi be­came de­pressed, her father let her get a job at Flor­mar, a makeup store at a nearby mall. Work has gone well, although she re­cently started wear­ing a face veil af­ter a wealthy male cus­tomer sent his body­guard to the mall of­fer­ing to pay her to see him.

She didn’t tell her father what hap­pened. He’d have made her quit.

Un­der Saudi Ara­bia’s strict guardian­ship laws, which King Salman has re­cently pledged to re­view, women must ob­tain per­mis­sion from a male guardian — a father, hus­band or in some cases even a son — to ap­ply for a pass­port, travel abroad or marry.

Of­ten, they need such con­sent even to get jobs or ob­tain med­i­cal care.

Some women try to defy the sys­tem, flee­ing to an­other coun­try or de­fi­antly rent­ing apart­ments on their own, where they can live un­der their own roofs. In many such cases, though, the women have been charged with run­ning away and wind up in jail.

Al­mu­tairi knew it would be use­less to ask her father for per­mis­sion to rent an apart­ment where she could keep her cats. He’d never agree.

So she got a se­cret apart­ment.

An apart­ment rental app of­fered a va­ri­ety of places in Riyadh, and it was op­er­ated by a prop­erty man­age­ment com­pany that does not re­quire a guardian’s ap­proval for a lease — many com­mon re­stric­tions on women, in­clud­ing hous­ing, are mat­ters not of law, but so­cial cus­tom.

Al­mu­tairi fig­ured it wouldn’t count as run­ning away if she rented an apart­ment but stayed there only part time.

Two months ago, she rented a three-bed­room place be­hind a bar­ber­shop in east Riyadh. She be­gan mov­ing in her 10 cats.


She heard their cries be­fore she en­tered the apart­ment, fum­bling with the keys on the thresh­old as the me­ow­ing rose in a crescendo. She opened the door to a cho­rus of hun­gry yowls.

She had told her fam­ily she was go­ing to work.

Al­mu­tairi re­moved her black head­scarf and abaya to re­veal short black hair, a white T-shirt and black pants. She greeted Shushu first, her fa­vorite shy, gray Per­sian; then Souada, a coal-black short­hair with emer­ald eyes. The most un­pop­u­lar cat she named Chris, af­ter the Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion show Every­body Hates Chris.

Shushu, Souada and Chris were cow­er­ing near a large lit­ter box on the gleam­ing, white-tile floor of a nearly empty liv­ing room that smelled of dis­in­fec­tant. In one cor­ner was a stack of card­board boxes, a cat tower and a cage.

In­side the cage was an ag­gres­sive or­ange-and-white tom cat that stood on its hind legs, claw­ing at the bars. Al­mu­tairi opened the cage, grabbed the cat and cra­dled him like a baby. The cat licked her fin­gers and com­menced purring.

“I missed him!” Al­mu­tairi said, smil­ing.

She re­treated into a small kitchen to mix up a batch of food: kib­ble, along with cooked chicken and rice.

Al­mu­tairi moved to the next room, spar­ely fur­nished with Per­sian rugs, seat cush­ions and a low ta­ble.

Ev­ery day, she spends a few hours here, more on week­ends. She fan­ta­sizes about the day when she might be able to stay, to wake up with the hot sun stream­ing through the win­dow, sip her morn­ing tea with a cat on her lap.

And talk to no one at all.


The rent for the apart­ment is 2,400 riyals a month, about $640 — more than half her monthly salary.

“It’s worth it, be­cause it makes me happy,” she said.

She has never had guests; not even her fam­ily has seen it. Her sis­ters don’t know about the apart­ment, though they know she has pets.

“Why are you wast­ing all your money on them?” they say.

Al­mu­tairi replies, “I adopted them from the streets. You want me to leave them in a park?”

She wor­ried when she first moved in that she wouldn’t be able to han­dle the re­spon­si­bil­ity of head­ing a house­hold. What if she couldn’t pay the rent? What if some­one found out?

Soon af­ter she moved in, she tem­po­rar­ily res­cued an in­jured dog, and a con­ser­va­tive neigh­bor be­long­ing to the re­li­gious po­lice com­plained to the au­thor­i­ties that it was howl­ing.

She gave the dog away, but then the same neigh­bor com­plained again af­ter Al­mu­tairi mis­tak­enly left her garbage in the wrong spot out­side.

She came home one day to find a win­dow mys­te­ri­ously opened from the out­side. One of her cats had es­caped, and she sus­pected the neigh­bor.

Still, the re­li­gious po­lice have been stripped of many of their pow­ers in re­cent years, and the com­plaints even­tu­ally stopped.

Al­mu­tairi’s am­bi­tions grew.

She has been set­ting money aside and in­ves­ti­gat­ing land for sale out­side the city. She found an acre she could buy for about $80,000 and en­vi­sions start­ing a no-kill an­i­mal shel­ter. She could get a loan from a bank to buy it. But she would have to give up her apart­ment. Her father would have to help her get the loan. She’s wait­ing un­til the fall to de­cide.

In the apart­ment, it was quiet — so quiet she could hear the low hum of the air con­di­tioner, the cats lap­ping up their wa­ter.

Al­mu­tairi had been home for about two hours. Soon, she knew, she would have to bun­dle back up in her scarf and abaya and leave for work.

“What I’m do­ing isn’t wrong,” she said.

She sounded con­vinced.


Maha Al­mu­tairi greets one of her 10 cats who live at an apart­ment in Riyadh, Saudi Ara­bia, that she rents with­out her father’s knowl­edge or ap­proval.

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