RIYADH: When Saudi doctor Safi took a new job at a hospital in the capital, she decided to offset her standard white lab coat with a look she once would have considered dramatic.
Walking into a Riyadh salon, she ordered the hairdresser to chop her long, wavy locks all the way up to her neck, a style increasingly in vogue among working women in the conservative kingdom.
The haircut — known locally by the English word “boy” — has become strikingly visible on the streets of the capital, and not just because women are no longer required to wear hijab headscarves under social reforms pushed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.
As more women join the workforce, a central plank of government efforts to remake the Saudi economy, many describe the “boy” cut as a practical, professional alternative to the longer styles they might have preferred in their pre-working days.
For Safi, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym to preserve her anonymity, the look also serves as a form of protection from unwanted male attention, allowing her to focus on her patients.
“People like to see femininity in a woman’s appearance,” she said. “This style is like a shield that protects me from people and gives me strength.”
At one salon in central Riyadh, demand for the “boy” cut has spiked — with seven or eight customers out of 30 requesting it on any given day, said Lamis, a hairdresser.
“This look has become very popular now,” she said. “The demand for it has increased, especially after women entered the labour market.
“The fact that many women do not wear the hijab has highlighted its spread” while spurring even more customers to try it out, especially women in their late teens and twenties, she said.
The lifting of the headscarf requirement is just one of many changes that have reordered daily life for Saudi women under Prince Mohammed, who was named as the heir to his 86-year-old father, King Salman, five years ago. Saudi women are no longer banned from concerts and sports events, and in 2018 they gained the right to drive.
The kingdom has also eased so-called guardianship rules, meaning women can now obtain passports and travel abroad without a male relative’s permission. Such reforms, however, have been accompanied by a crackdown on women’s rights activists, part of a broader campaign against dissent.
Getting more women to work is a major component of Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 reform plan to make Saudi Arabia less dependent on oil.
Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2022