In almost all of my childhood memories of him, my younger brother seems to be in motion. Energetic in both body and spirit. Often expressive to the point of offence, but in such a way that you knew he would defend you when you were too frightened to defend yourself.
He sat in the front seat of the car, a beat-up Suburban with a navy blue metal body so thin that it looked like crumpled paper. Beside him, the driver hunched his shoulders over the steering wheel in silent concentration on the road ahead. The AC roared from tiny black slits on the dashboard, like a second engine. From my seat behind the driver, I could see beads of sweat form on the side of his neck. Even with the AC on its highest setting, he was sweating. We all were.
“Are you sure it’s okay?” my brother asked for the second time since we’d left school to head home. He glanced back at me briefly before turning back to the road.
“Yeah,” I shrugged. “It’s fine.”
He stared ahead and added, “I won’t take long. I just — I want to get one CD.”
“It’s fine,” I repeated. “I promise.”
“Do you want anything?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t want anything.”
We pulled up in front of a record store, so small that I could see the entirety of its square shop floor from the backseat of the car. Tupac’s face graced a small poster above a low shelf of CDs. At the till swelled an unorganised pile of “Now That’s What I Call Music” albums, their covers littered with loud bubble letters.
My brother unbuckled his seatbelt and turned around to face me. Forcing a smile, he said, “I’ll be right back.”
He shoved the passenger seat door, which opened with a groan before freeing him from the car’s clutches. And in the same second that he slammed the door behind him, the driver turned the key to silence the double-engined roar of the car and air conditioning.
We waited, and beneath my headscarf, I could feel my head grow hotter and hotter.
At the time that I lived in Saudi Arabia, women and girls were not allowed to enter shops that sold music. Music, like driving, is seen as leading to sinful behaviour and vice. The permissibility of music in Saudi Arabia continues to be debated, even though music plays a role in many traditions and practices. In a fatwa concerning the lawfulness of taking photographs and watching television, it is grouped with “other broadcasted sorts of evils“. In response to a query from a person who worked in a record store, another fatwa states categorically, “Your job is Haram“. More moderate imams claim that music is not forbidden.
I don’t know if the ban on women in music stores was a formal or an informal one. But I imagine that justifications for the ban formed part of the same constellation of justifications for policies that continue to restrict women in far more damaging ways. Such justifications pivot on a woman’s alleged differences from men, her “special nature” due to menstruation and childbirth, her weak constitution, all of which leave her more susceptible to the sin that music might inspire. Men and boys, on the other hand, can handle it.
Discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia relies on the toxic archetype of a weak and hyper-sexualised female that exists only in the frightened imaginations of those desperate for control. The right to shop for music is perhaps a minor one, but the memory of that afternoon in the backseat of a baking Suburban still flickers occasionally.
When the door to the passenger side groaned open once again, my brother climbed in silently and clicked his seatbelt back into place. He glanced back and said, “Thanks.”
“You don’t need to say thank you. It’s okay,” I reassured him. And I meant it because I knew that he had felt uncomfortable enough to ask my permission for the detour and to apologise profusely throughout the journey. “It’s okay.”
We both sat still while the driver started the car and pulled away from the small (salacious) music shop.
“We can listen to it together when we get home,” he said.