On Friday night, Mohammed al-Sayed donned a pale pink shirt and denim overalls to join a friend at a movie theater in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, where the men settled in to watch a film about a doll on a mission to dismantle the patriarchy.
Similar scenes played out across the conservative Islamic kingdom last weekend, as women painted their nails pink, tied pink bows in their hair and draped pink floor-length abayas over their shoulders for the regional debut of the movie, “Barbie.” While critics across the Middle East have called for the film to be banned for undermining traditional gender norms, many Saudis ignored them.
They watched as the movie imagined a matriarchal society of Barbie dolls where men are eye candy. They laughed when a male character asked, “I’m a man with no power; does that make me a woman?” They snapped their fingers in delight as a mother delivered a monologue about the strictures of stereotypical femininity. Then, they emerged from the darkened theaters to contemplate what it all meant.
“The message is that you are enough — whatever you are,” said Mr. al-Sayed, 21, echoing the Ken doll’s revelation.
“We saw ourselves,” said Mr. al-Sayed’s friend, Nawaf al-Dossary, 20, wearing a matching pink shirt.
Watching Barbie’s search for identity and meaning, Mr. al-Sayed said he was reminded of the fraught period when he started college and wasn’t sure of his place in the world. He said he believed that the movie had important lessons for men as well as women.
“I felt like my mom should see the film,” he said.
“All of our families — all families,” Mr. al-Dossary said, laughing.
That this was happening in Saudi Arabia — one of the most male-dominated countries in the world — was mind-boggling to many in the Middle East. When “Barbie” opened on Thursday in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, it arrived suddenly and overwhelmingly. Moviegoers rushed to prepare Barbie-pink outfits. Some theaters scheduled more than 15 showings a day.
A snide headline in the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq al-Awsat declared that Saudi cinemas had become “havens for Gulf citizens escaping from harsh restrictions” — a twist in a country whose people once had to drive to Bahrain to watch movies.
Eight years ago, there were no movie theaters in the Saudi kingdom, let alone any showing films about patriarchy. Women were barred from driving. The religious police roamed the streets, enforcing gender segregation and shouting at women to cover up from head to toe in black.
Since he rose to power, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 37, has done away with many of those restrictions while simultaneously increasing political repression, imprisoning conservative religious clerics, leftist activists, critical businessmen and members of his own family.
Even now, despite sweeping social changes, Saudi Arabia remains a state built around patriarchy. By law, the kingdom’s ruler must be a male member of the royal family, and while several women have ascended to high-ranking positions, all of Prince Mohammed’s cabinet members and closest advisers are men. Saudi women may be pouring into the work force and traveling to outer space, but they still need approval from a male guardian to marry. And gay and transgender Saudis face deep-seated discrimination, and sometimes arrest.
So as word spread through the kingdom that “Barbie” would debut on a delayed schedule — a sign that government censors were most likely deliberating over it — many Saudis thought the movie would be banned, or at least heavily censored. Bolstering their expectations was the fact that neighboring Kuwait banned the film last week.
Lebanon’s culture minister, Muhammad Al-Murtada, also called for the film to be banned, saying that it violated local values by “promoting homosexuality” and “raising doubts about the necessity of marriage and building a family.” It is unclear if the government will follow his recommendation.
Even in Arab nations that have allowed the film to be shown, it has faced intense criticism. The Bahraini preacher Hassan al-Husseini shared a video with one million Instagram followers calling the movie a Trojan horse for “corrupt agendas.”
And in Saudi Arabia, not everyone is receptive to the film. To the entrepreneur Wafa Alrushaid, who suggested that the film be banned in her country, its messages are a “distortion of feminism.”
“I’m a liberal person who has called for freedom for 30 years, so this isn’t about customs and traditions, but the values of humanity and reason,” she told The New York Times. The film, she argued, excessively victimizes women and vilifies men, and she objected to the fact that a transgender actress had played one of the Barbies.
“This film is a conspiracy against families and the world’s children,” Ms. Alrushaid, 48, declared.
Many Arab critics of the movie expressed views similar to those of some American politicians and right-wing figures who have castigated the film as anti-male. The tussle in the Middle East over the movie illustrates how battles that sometimes echo the so-called U.S. culture wars are playing out on a different landscape.
The animated film “Lightyear,” which showed two female characters kissing, was banned in several countries in the region last year. And six Gulf Arab countries issued an unusual statement last year demanding that Netflix remove content that violates “Islamic and societal values and principles,” threatening to take legal action.
In Kuwait, religious conservatives have become more vocal in recent years, Gulf analysts say, broadcasting views that many Saudis would be hesitant to express in public now, fearing repercussions from the government.
“Banning the movie ‘Barbie’ fits into a larger tilt to the right that’s increasingly felt in Kuwait,” said Bader Al-Saif, an assistant professor of history at Kuwait University. “Islamist and conservative forces in Kuwait are relishing in these culture wars to prove their ascendancy.”
Some Kuwaitis expressed astonishment that they would have to travel to the Saudi kingdom to watch the movie. Many pointed out the irony that Kuwait and Lebanon, despite objecting to the film, had long provided greater freedom of expression than many other Arab countries.
Streaming out of movie theaters in Riyadh, people who watched “Barbie” seemed to leave with their own understanding.
Yara Mohammed, 26, said that she had enjoyed the movie, dismissing the Kuwaiti ban as “drama.”
“Even if kids saw it, it’s so normal,” she said.
To Abrar Saad, 28, the message was simply that “the world doesn’t work without Ken or Barbie; they need to complete each other.”
But to teenage girls like Aljohara and Ghada — who were accompanied by an adult and asked to be identified only by their first names because of their ages — the film felt deeper.
“The idea was pretty realistic,” said Aljohara, 14, wearing a hot pink shirt underneath her black abaya. She said she liked that the film ended with a type of equality between men and women.
“But it wasn’t nice that it ended with equality,” interjected Ghada, 16. “Because I feel like equality is a little bit wrong; I feel like it’s better for there to be equity because there are things a boy can’t do but you can do them.”
Asked if they ever thought they would watch such a movie in Saudi Arabia, both exclaimed, with laughter: “No!”
“I was expecting them to censor a lot of scenes,” Ghada said.
In fact, it did not appear censors had cut anything major. A scene in which Barbie declares that she has no vagina and Ken no penis remained, as well as a scene with the transgender actress. The Arabic subtitles were rendered faithfully — including the word patriarchy.
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon, and Ahmed Al Omran from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.