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 would once have found dramatic.
Walking into a salon in Riyadh, she ordered the hairdresser to chop her long, wavy locks all the way to her nape, a style increasingly popular among working women in the conservative kingdom.
The haircut – known locally by the English word ‘boy’ – has become conspicuously visible on the streets of the capital, and not just because women are no longer required to wear hijab headscarves as a result of social reforms implemented by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, The de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.
As more women enter work, a central part of the government’s effort to remake the Saudi economy, many describe the “boys” cut as a practical, professional alternative to the longer styles they may have preferred in their pre-teens. business days.
For Safi, who requested identification with 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.”
A practical time saver
At a salon in central Riyadh, demand for the “boys” cut has skyrocketed — with seven or eight out of 30 customers 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 enter the labor market.
“The fact that many women don’t wear the hijab has highlighted its spread,” while urging even more customers to try it out, especially women in their late teens and 20s, she said.
The lifting of the headscarf requirement is just one of many changes that have reordered the daily lives of 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 sporting events, and in 2018 they were given the right to drive.
The kingdom has also relaxed so-called guardianship rules, meaning women can now get passports and travel abroad without permission from a male relative.
However, such reforms have been accompanied by a crackdown on women’s rights activists, as part of a wider campaign against dissent.
Getting more women into work is an important part of Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 reform plan to make Saudi Arabia less dependent on oil.
The plan initially called for women to make up 30 percent of the workforce by the end of the decade, but that figure has already reached 36 percent, Assistant Tourism Minister Princess Haifa Al-Saud told the World Economic Forum last month in davos.
“We see women in every type of job these days,” said Princess Haifa, noting that 42 percent of small and medium-sized businesses are owned by women.
Many working women interviewed by AFP praised the “boy” cut as a tool to help them navigate their new professional lives.
“I’m a practical woman and I don’t have time to take care of my hair,” said Abeer Mohammed, a 41-year-old mother of two who runs a menswear store.
“My hair is curly and if my hair gets long I’m going to have to spend time that I don’t have to take care of it in the morning.”
Saudi Arabia has traditionally banned men who “imitate women” or wear women’s clothing, and vice versa.
But Rose, a 29-year-old shoe saleswoman at a Riyadh shopping center, sees her cropped hair as a means of asserting her independence from men, not imitating them.
It “gives me strength and confidence…I feel different and can do whatever I want without custody,” Rose said, who declined to give her full name.
“At first my family rejected the look, but over time they got used to it,” she added.
Such acceptance partly reflects the influence of Arab stars such as actress Yasmin Raeis or singer Shirene who have adopted the style, Egyptian stylist Mai Galal said.
“A woman who cuts her hair in this way is a woman of strong character, because it is not easy for women to shed their hair,” Galal told AFP.
Nouf, who works in a cosmetics store and preferred not to give her last name, described the “boy” message as follows: “We want to say that we exist, and our role in society is not much different from that of Heren.”
Short hair, she added, is “a show of women’s strength”.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and has been published from a syndicated feed.)