The US has seen plenty of debates about separating students based on gender; about whether single-sex colleges are to women’s benefit or disadvantage. In Saudi Arabia, which is consistently ranked as one of the worst places for women in the world, businesswomen are behind plans to create a new industrial city for women workers only. The new city is the first of a number planned and is to provide women with greater financial opportunities and independence, while maintaining the segregation of the genders.
The new city is to be located in the eastern province city of Hofuf and to create some 5,000 jobs in textiles, pharmaceuticals and food-processing industries, in companies and manufacturing sites operated by women.
While almost 60 percent college graduates in the country are women, 78 percent are unemployed (1,000 of whom have doctoral degrees). All told, only about 15 percent of Saudi women are employed, most in female-only workplaces.
Some private corporations have insisted that they will only hire women who are not married but Saudi authorities say that this is against the country’s workforce regulations.
Segregated and Not Equal?
As Homa Khaleeli writes in Business Insider, much of Saudi society is segregated, including universities, offices, restaurants and entrances to buildings. The kingdom’s ultra-conservative Wahabi sharia laws that systematically discriminate against women are well-known. These laws prevent women from driving, traveling on their own or seeking certain medical procedures without a male relative’s approval. Women also cannot decide where to work or study, who to marry or whether to leave the house on their own.
Last year, efforts to give Saudi women the right to drive received international attention after Manal al-Sharif, an information technology specialist with the state-run oil company Aramco and a divorced mother of a young son, was arrested after driving.
Last September, King Abdullah said that women would be able to vote in local elections and for the consultative assembly by 2015. In January, a law allowing women to be employed in lingerie and cosmetic shops was enforced — such stores had previously been staffed with male employees — and, by the end of this year, women are to replace men in stores that sell abayas, the traditional black clothing that women must wear in public in Saudi Arabia.
But Khaleeli emphasizes that segregation in Saudi Arabia is “so extreme the plans [to build a women-only city] bring to mind the US’s racial divide under the Jim Crow laws,” to add yet another institution to Saudi society that is “separate but equal”:
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 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 city is a success, more will be built and women will be more segregated than ever — and if it fails, this will “no doubt, be seen as a sign women are not fit to run businesses,” says Khaleeli.
A poll by YouGov and Bayt.com cited in the Guardian indeed found that 65 percent of Saudi women wish to achieve greater financial independence through their careers while those under 25 wish to make use of their educations. The will among women is surely there but will more “for women only” institutions really make a difference?
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