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(For this reason, the names of most people in this story have been changed.) Ask many Saudis about homosexuality, and they’ll wince with repugnance.“I disapprove,” Rania, a 32-year-old human-resources manager, told me firmly.The mutawwa'in prod shoppers to say their devotions when the shops close for prayer, several times daily.

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A few years ago, a Jeddah- based newspaper ran a story on lesbianism in high schools, reporting that girls were having sex in the bathrooms.

Yasmin, a 21-year-old student in Riyadh who’d had a brief sexual relationship with a girlfriend (and was the only Saudi woman who’d had a lesbian relationship who was willing to speak with me for this story), told me that one of the department buildings at her college is known as a lesbian enclave.

The list of prohibitions is long: It’s haram—forbidden—to smoke, drink, go to discos, or mix with an unrelated person of the opposite gender.

The rules are enforced by the mutawwa'in, religious authorities employed by the government’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

They make sure that single men steer clear of the malls, which are family-only zones for the most part, unless they are with a female relative.

Though the power of the mutawwa'in has been curtailed recently, their presence still inspires fear. Though that penalty is seldom applied, just this February a man in the Mecca region was executed for having sex with a boy, among other crimes.

But what seems more startling, at least from a Western perspective, is that some of the men having sex with other men don’t consider themselves gay.

For many Saudis, the fact that a man has sex with another man has little to do with “gayness.” The act may fulfill a desire or a need, but it doesn’t constitute an identity.

“If you go out with a girl, people will start to ask her questions.

But if I have a date upstairs and my family is downstairs, they won’t even come up.” Notorious for its adherence to Wahhabism, a puritanical strain of Islam, and as the birthplace of most of the 9/11 hijackers, Saudi Arabia is the only Arab country that claims sharia, or Islamic law, as its sole legal code.

Vibrant communities of men who enjoy sex with other men can be found in cosmopolitan cities like Jeddah and Riyadh.

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