Opinion | Columnists

Segregation at war with liberty

Saudi Arabia’s plan for cities of female workers is no blueprint guaranteed to increase women’s independence

  • By Homa Khaleeli
  • Published: 00:00 August 15, 2012
  • Gulf News

Saudi athlete Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdul Rahim Shaherkani
  • Image Credit: Reuters
  • Saudi athlete Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdul Rahim Shaherkani, who was allowed at the last minute to compete in the Olympics.

Are radical feminist separatists infiltrating Saudi Arabia’s ruling elite? Have the women of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia undergone a wild revolution, read Love Your Enemy? and decided to eschew all male company to create their own political systems and free themselves from the patriarchy? I hope so, because otherwise it’s hard to imagine the convoluted logic behind a decision to build all-female cities to boost women’s employment.

The country already has separate schools, segregated universities (and the biggest all-female university in the world) not to mention offices, restaurants and even separate entrances for public buildings. Now industrial hubs are to be built so that women can be hidden away even further than their current dresscode of abaya, headscarf and niqab allows.

The country’s segregation is so extreme the plans bring to mind the US’ racial divide under the Jim Crow laws, ensuring “separate but equal” institutions for black and white people. And like the legalised discrimination in the US, “equal” in this context means no such thing. The female half of the adult population of Saudi Arabia is considered unfit to control their own lives. Women cannot decide whether to leave the house, whether or who to marry, whether to work or study, whether to travel, what to wear, or even whether to have major surgery without the consent of a male guardian.

In a country of such startling misogyny, which treats women like children, it is hardly surprising there are few women in work and that is becoming a crisis the ruling elite is being forced to take notice of. Almost 60 per cent of the country’s college graduates are women, but 78 per cemt of female university graduates are apparently unemployed — despite the fact more than 1,000 hold a doctorate degree. In total, only 15 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s workforce are women. And unlike in many recession-hit countries, there are more than enough jobs to go around — the economy apparently booming.

Yet with women refused driving licences for fear it will lead to social disintegration, education for girls failing to fit them for the workplace, and businesswomen still expected to have a male representative to deal with government agencies, not to mention the pressure to provide women with separate offices, employers naturally favour men.

With sexism so central to the system, women are also largely restricted to traditionally female-oriented fields in the public sector and less than 1 per cent of decision-making posts are held by Saudi women.

With so many barriers and a climate that seems hostile to women working or being in the public eye at all, many female employers and employees will no doubt welcome the chance to find jobs and not have to cope with the difficulties of a mixed-sex environment. The industrial cities are said to be places that will improve women’s prospects and give them the chance for greater financial independence. The first is planned to open next year, and will apparently create 5,000 jobs in textiles, pharmaceuticals and food-processing industries, with four similar industrial cities being proposed in Riyadh.

But how can further segregation be expected to solve the problems caused by discrimination? It takes a peculiar leap of logic to think the answer is instead to build whole new cities where women who choose to have careers can be herded. Would this be seen as acceptable, even progressive, if the cities were there to house workplaces for people of one race rather than one gender?

But where are the voices calling for an end to the country’s discriminatory practices? There has been none of the broad support that would have ensued had the segregation been along race lines. In South Africa such segregation was the basis for a worldwide boycott, yet Saudi Arabia is merely seen as an “exceptional” place with a different culture.

Clerics will say that Islam does not allow women and men to mix at work, while the rulers explain that segregation is part of Saudi culture. Yet Islamic feminists have pointed out time and time again, that the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) himself was married to a businesswoman — with no need to hide in an all-women city. A culture that does not just segregate women, but enshrines in law that they are second-class citizens is hardly one worth preserving.

If the cities fail, it will, no doubt, be seen as a sign women are not fit to run businesses. But if they turn out to be a success, more will be built, and women will be more segregated than ever — disappearing even further from the public sphere. So maybe the answer is for women to not just welcome the cities, but flock to them, close the doors, and refuse to leave until the kingdom’s rulers understand just what it is like to live without women.

guardian.co.uk Guardian News and Media 2012

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