In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, I discovered a Starbucks tucked into a corner of a fancy shopping mall in the Saudi capital. Dressed in a heavy Islamic cloak, I ordered a latte and then, coffee in hand, I sank into the sumptuous lap of an overstuffed armchair. "Excuse me," hissed the man from the counter. "You can't sit here." "Why?" Then he said it: "Men only." As a woman, I had no right to mix with male customers or sit in plain view of passing shoppers.
Like the segregated South of a bygone U.S., today's Saudi Arabia shunts half the population into separate, inferior and usually invisible spaces. I spent my days in Saudi Arabia struggling unhappily between a lifetime of being taught to respect foreign cultures and the realization that this culture judged me a lesser being. The rules are different in Saudi Arabia. The same U.S. government that heightened public outrage against the Taliban by decrying the mistreatment of Afghan women prizes the oil-slicked Saudi friendship and even offers wan praise for Saudi elections in which women are banned from voting.