Segregated theme park Abha Saudi Arabia
All photos: Arwa Al-Na’imi

Women Can Go to Saudi Arabia's Theme Parks. But There Are Rules

Photographer Arwa Al-Na’imi used to love theme parks, but found them less fun as she got older and was separated from her brother.

This article originally appeared on VICE Arabia.

For a time, it seemed like Saudi artist Arwa Al-Na’imi wouldn't be able to follow her creative path. She was born in Abha, a city in the southern Aseer province of Saudi Arabia and passionate about art from a young age. But none of the universities in the 34-year-old's hometown offered an art degree, so instead she became one of the first women in the country to enrol in a computer science course.


She never stopped creating art, though, and soon after graduating, Arwa received the prestigious Abha arts prize from the Southern Region Arts Council. From there she joined the Muftaha Art Village, the first art collective of its kind in southern Saudi Arabia, where she was given the support to exhibit much of her work. "I was competing against top artists. At the time, I couldn't even see my paintings being exhibited because they only allowed men into the museums." Arwa later became one of the first women to shoot inside the Al Masjid an Nabawi – a mosque built by Prophet Muhammed, considered the second holiest site in Islam.


Over the past five years, Arwa has been working on her latest project, "Never Never Land". The series features photos taken at a theme park in her hometown – one that, like all theme parks across Saudi Arabia, is gender-segregated. "I used to love going to theme parks, and I wanted to show how my relationship with the place changed over time," she explains. "My brother and I used to go when we were younger – but we had to stop going together as we got older because they don't allow men and women in the same spaces. In addition to the sex segregation, women are banned from even screaming on the rides and wearing trousers. Everyone screams anyway though, and women wear pants. What are the authorities going to do? You can't punish everyone."

To take photos, Arwa had to hide her camera under her abaya. "Never Never Land" features a striking contrast between the black abayas and niqabs, and the colourful details of the theme park. "Saudi Arabia today is not the same as Saudi Arabia a year ago," she says. And though she's happy with the social developments for women across the country that have seen women gain access to more freedoms – including driving and the right to travel without first getting permission from a man – Arwa believes more should be done to support female artists. "Opportunities are limited," she says. "I have numerous ideas and projects but I do not know who to take them to."


Scroll down to see more photos from Never Never Land.