Amélie Le Renard
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The buyat
Subverting gender norms in Saudi Arabia
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Various minority ‘styles’ have sprung up in Saudi Arabia campuses. The neologism buyat comes from the English ‘boy’, to which the Arabic suffix of feminisation -a (plural -at) has been added. In many countries of the Arabian Peninsula, and notably Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Kuwait, the term is applied to people assigned female who wear clothes considered ‘masculine’. They may avoid figure-hugging outfits, replacing them with men’s shirts, football jerseys and other loose-fitting tops, and occasionally a band or binder to flatten their chests. This is markedly different from the ‘Islamic’ form of dress intended to conceal what are considered to be female physical attributes, but without casting doubt on gender classifications. Whereas some press articles and debates treat the ‘phenomenon’ as pathological, using the term ‘masculinisation’ (istirjal), and often associate it with ‘affective relationships between girls’, the Saudi students I met more often describe it as a ‘style’. It is thus interpreted as a fashion or subculture. The public performances of buyat, and their interpretation in terms of ‘style’, reveal the struggles and negotiations around gender norms that are played out in the spaces shared by young urban Saudi women. Following an ethnographic approach based on observation of the campus and discussions with students, I analyse the meanings attached to the buya style within the Saudi context and its characterisation by those who adopt it – as well as by others. Even though transgressive styles and sexual categories circulate transnationally, globally and regionally, they are charged with local values and meanings.

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