When the issue of the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia comes up it sometimes leads outsiders to question the contradiction between gender segregation and a woman spending so much time alone in a car with an unrelated man. To completely understand how this came about you have to go back in history to when slavery was the norm. Back then, women did not stringently cover from their male slaves and in some families they did not cover at all. The neutering of some male slaves was socially acceptable. This attitude somehow transferred to the modern day drivers. Women who are religious strictly cover from their drivers but the majority treat drivers like a little less than a man.
Another aspect that plays into this contradiction is the driver’s nationality. As a writer, I do not mean to offend anyone but this is an unspoken fact that I have observed as part of this society. The main point of covering up besides just obeying Allah is to discourage unwonted attention and to nip any idea of a romantic relationship. On that latter point’s basis, the driver’s nationality eases the restriction on interaction and covering because a relationship is completely out of the question. This is true for any nationality east of the Middle East. And it is also true for waiters, cleaners and cooks. I have sat at restaurants with women who cover at all times but once the table partition is put up they take off all their head covering because the waiter is an Indian, or Pilipino.
The mostly manliest men that women will go running behind a curtain if they don’t have a abaya nearby, are men within the same age range and come from the same region and tribe. If they are too young or too old she’ll probably just hold a sofa cushion in front of her face until a child or maid hands her her abaya. So when Qassimi women come to Riyadh, they won’t be so strict about their abayas and scarves at the mall because there is less of a chance of them running into a male cousin, neighbor or family friend. And women from Riyadh are known to relatively go wild when visiting the Eastern or Western Region based on that same principle. A Husband pays little attention to his wife’s abaya after they leave the house. But if he happens to see a colleague or cousin coming his way, trust that he will quickly scrutinize his wife’s attire and if it is the least bit revealing he will distance himself. And this is also why a Saudi female customer will interact differently with a Saudi shop assistant based on his regional accent.
At the next level you have Saudis in general. This is observable abroad. Saudis will mingle with the general population of their host countries without worry about proper hijab. This will remain the state if only a few other Saudi families are within the bumping into each other zone. Once the number of families grows into the double digits, even the most liberal women will consider covering up.
Other male Arabs and Westerners with the exception of Egyptians are almost looked at as gay. Because many Saudi women have come to believe that these men, unlike their Saudi counterparts, unquestionably respect women. Saudi women cover in their presence. However they are a lot more relaxed in conversation and body language.
Unfortunately, Egyptian men here have not been able to cultivate the above reputation. I don’t know if this is because of the bad impression people get from Egyptian movies or because of the conduct of a few bad apples.