At first people refuse to believe that a strange new thing can be done, then they begin to hope it can be done, then they see it can be done — then it is done and all the world wonders why it was not done centuries ago.
— Frances Hodgson Burnett, “The Secret Garden”
Maha Almutairi has a secret apartment.
At 35, like most unmarried Saudi women, she still officially lives at home. Her father decides what can and can’t happen in his home. Decisions about what she will study, where she will work, all are subject to her father’s permission.
Can she have cats? Not anywhere in the apartment building her father owns, he ruled, even though Almutairi has long loved rescuing strays and hiding them in her room.
Could she travel abroad to study medicine? No, her father said, not without a male relative to accompany her. She gave up on being a doctor and signed up to study interior design at a school in Riyadh.
But she has been growing more independent.
When her father tried to force her into a marriage with a man he thought would be a suitable partner, she refused.
“It’s my decision,” she told him.
Two years ago, after her mother died and Almutairi became depressed, her father let her get a job at Flormar, a makeup store at a nearby mall. Work has gone well, although she recently started wearing a face veil after a wealthy male customer sent his bodyguard to the mall offering to pay her to see him.
She didn’t tell her father what happened. He’d have made her quit.
Under Saudi Arabia’s strict guardianship laws, which King Salman has recently pledged to review, women must obtain permission from a male guardian — a father, husband or in some cases even a son — to apply for a passport, travel abroad or marry.
Some women try to defy the system, fleeing to another country or defiantly renting an apartment on their own, where they can live under their own roof. In many of these cases, though, the women have been charged with running away and jailed.
Almutairi knew it would be useless to ask her father for permission to rent an apartment where she could keep her cats. He’d never agree.
So she got a secret apartment.
An apartment rental app offered a variety of places in Riyadh, and it was operated by a property management company that does not require a guardian’s approval for a lease — many common restrictions on women, including housing, are matters not of law, but social custom.
Almutairi figured it wouldn’t count as running away if she rented an apartment, but stayed there only part time.
Two months ago, she rented a three-bedroom place behind a barbershop in east Riyadh. She began moving in her 10 cats.
She heard their cries before she entered the apartment, fumbling with the keys on the threshold as the meowing rose in a crescendo. She opened the door to a chorus of hungry yowls.
She had told her family she was going to work.
Almutairi removed her black head scarf and abaya to reveal short black hair, a white T-shirt and black pants. She greeted Shushu first, her favorite shy, gray Persian, then Souada, a coal-black shorthair with emerald eyes. The most unpopular cat she named Chris, after the American television show “Everybody Hates Chris.”
Shushu, Souada and Chris were cowering near a large litter box on the gleaming, white-tile floor of a nearly empty living room that smelled of disinfectant. In one corner was a stack of cardboard boxes, a cat tower and a cage.
Inside the cage was an aggressive orange-and-white tom cat that stood on its hind legs, clawing at the bars. Almutairi opened the cage, grabbed the cat and cradled him like a baby. The cat licked her fingers and commenced purring.
“I missed him!” Almutairi said, smiling.
She retreated into a small kitchen to mix up a batch of food: kibble, along with cooked chicken and rice.
Almutairi moved to the next room, sparely furnished with Persian rugs, seat cushions and a low table.
Every day, she spends a few hours here, more on weekends. She fantasizes about the day when she might be able to stay, to wake up with the hot sun streaming through the window, sip her morning tea with a cat on her lap.
And talk to no one at all.
The rent for the apartment is 2,400 riyals a month, about $640 — more than half her monthly salary.
“It’s worth it, because it makes me happy,” she said.
She has never had guests; not even her family has seen it. Her sisters don’t know about the apartment, though they know she has pets.
“Why are you wasting all your money on them?” they say.
Almutairi replies, “I adopted them from the streets. You want me to leave them in a park?”
She worried when she first moved in that she wouldn’t be able to handle the responsibility of heading a household. What if she couldn’t pay the rent? What if someone found out?
Soon after she moved in, she temporarily rescued an injured dog, and a conservative neighbor belonging to the religious police complained to the authorities that it was howling.
She gave the dog away, but then the same neighbor complained again after Almutairi mistakenly left her garbage in the wrong spot outside.
She came home one day to find a window mysteriously opened from the outside. One of her cats had escaped, and she suspected the neighbor.
Still, the religious police have been stripped of many of their powers in recent years, and the complaints eventually stopped.
Almutairi’s ambitions grew.
In the apartment, it was quiet — so quiet she could hear the low hum of the air conditioner, the cats lapping up their water.
When the call to prayer sounded from the nearby mosques, it reverberated in the empty rooms.
Almutairi had been home for about two hours. Soon, she knew, she would have to bundle back up in her scarf and abaya and leave for work.
“What I’m doing isn’t wrong,” she said.
She sounded convinced.