When Aatish, 23, hosted a Halloween party over the weekend — a small gathering of friends at his parents’ house that mostly involved board games, snacks and music videos — he had only one rule: Don’t post any pictures on the internet. This was particularly important because Aatish’s dad works for the Saudi government. And in a deeply conservative country like Saudi Arabia, where Halloween is banned for its roots in paganism and its association with evil spirits, getting caught celebrating such a holiday can lead to fines, black marks on personal records and even imprisonment.
Still, parties like Aatish’s have taken place for decades. “Halloween is one of my favorite holidays,” Aatish writes over WhatsApp. “I like horror movies, doing face makeup and dressing up as Freddy Krueger, The Joker and Frankenstein.” Among his friends at college, Halloween is a big deal, too, and if they don’t go to a secretive house party, they’ll sometimes head to expensive tourist resorts and night clubs in Jeddah, where celebrations of Western holidays like Halloween and Christmas are advertised online, and/or spread through WhatsApp networks.
For the most part though, Halloween parties in Saudi Arabia are kept secret. And not without reason. Just this weekend, the hisbah (or “moral police”) busted an all-female private Halloween gathering in Riyadh, where young women dressed in costumes, wore makeup and danced to music, after clips from the party were found on Instagram and Snapchat. Religious conservatives retweeted the clips with comments like, “What is this — Las Vegas or Riyadh?” while claiming that the Kingdom’s younger generation were being “corrupted” by Western influence. At another party on Saturday night, 17 Filipinas who worked in Saudi Arabia were arrested after they were caught holding a Halloween party. Following the arrests, the Filipino embassy in Riyadh issued a warning for visitors to “refrain from organizing or attending events or gatherings that are unsanctioned or without permission from the local authorities,” and to not put themselves in situations where “unattached men and women are seen together in public.”
The arrests, of course, come on the heels of the country’s alleged complicity in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. They also seem to fly in the face of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s modest social reforms — e.g., allowing women to drive on their own and reopening the Kingdom’s movie theatres. Though, in fairness, young people like Aatish always knew that the Prince’s “reforms” were a smokescreen. “Nothing was going to change, and most people knew it,” he tells me, adding that the country’s ulema, the religious leaders who act as gatekeepers to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, would never really allow them. “The ulema make decisions here,” Aatish explains. “The power of [the king] only happens when he has their approval.”
That said, the hisbah has been known to look the other way. As Orlando Crowcroft, the author of Rock in a Hard Place: Music and Mayhem in the Middle East, tells me, things that the state has technically prohibited “have always happened behind closed doors. For example, there’s always been music scenes in cities like Jeddah, and they’ve [tended] to have a ‘to and fro’ relationship with the authorities.” Generally speaking, Crowcroft, who spent time with metal bands in Saudi Arabia for his book, says, “The authorities have tended to turn a blind eye until things are pushed too far. The metal bands would know exactly how to evade the authorities by advertising their shows without breaking any of the rules that would get them shut down. They played everything by the book. It was only when word got around that they were doing shows — and it might cause a ruckus outside when all these people showed up — that you’d end up in a confrontation with the authorities.”
He thinks that the Halloween party raids probably follow the same kind of methodology — i.e., the authorities knowingly let them take place, until evidence of them surface on social media. “It’s always a tug-of-war between young people doing what young people do and the authorities in a place like Saudi Arabia — just like it is anywhere,” Crowcroft says. “Although the stakes are higher in Saudi, of course. You have to play the game right.”
Farah, a 17-year-old college student who moved to Jeddah from the U.K. with her parents six years ago, saw the video of the all-female party being circulated around the internet Saturday night. “It shows that the police are paying more attention to how we use the internet,” she says. “Before — if you came from a wealthy family, or if you had contacts — you could [evade] the police. But now they can act based on what they see online.”
She adds, “The party was a single gender one, they were respectful and they were just having fun. It was because it [was posted] online that the arrests happened. It makes me worry that I could get in trouble for anything I do on social media, or anything I say that [might be] seen as wrong.” Same for her friends. “They always post pictures of themselves at parties, in clubs and doing their makeup. Nothing has happened at the moment, but they could get in trouble at any time.”
Others, however, argue that despite the arrests, Saudi Arabia is still going through a progressive period. “The famous Halloween party and alleged arrests comes purely as part of government reaction to social media outrage,” says Saeed Alwahabi, a UAE-based researcher and Middle East analyst. He argues that the government had little choice but to respond to the anger of conservative religious communities that constitute much of the Saudi population outside of the bigger metropolitan cities. Otherwise, he says, “I see Saudi Arabia going in the direction of more tolerance, liberalism and progression. A top-down — as well as bottom-up — push to relax social restrictions is ongoing and more will come in time.”
To that end, he expects the release of those arrested this Halloween to happen imminently, especially as the country still reels from Khashoggi’s murder. “The Halloween party and news of the arrests is normal with the context of a country that’s progressing. It doesn’t mean that the progress will go back. Even when police have caught people having Halloween parties, they don’t immediately arrest them. Some of the police officers will even join in on the fun.”
Saudi teens and twentysomethings seem to believe that enough that the arrests don’t seem to have detterred them from planning and attending future celebrations. Aatish, in fact, is currently planning his upcoming Christmas party — which will include wearing costumes and doing a “Secret Santa.” He’s even getting a Christmas tree delivered to his house in the next few weeks. “It’s a pretty big one” he says. “Though I probably won’t be putting it online.”