The fight for Saudi women’s rights has been well-documented in the press, especially the high-profile protests women’s rights activists launched on the heels of the Arab Spring in hopes to win the right to drive in the Kingdom, the only place in the world where women are legally not permitted to get behind the wheel.
This observation by Chairwoman of the Department of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia, Farzaneh Milani explains why gender apartheid in Saudi is unique:
…The driving ban stems from universal anxiety over women’s unrestrained mobility. In Saudi Arabia that anxiety is acute: the streets-and the right to enter and leave them at will-belong to men…Gender apartheid is not about piety. It is about dominating, excluding and subordinating women. It is about barring them from political activities, preventing their active participation in the public sector.
Although late last fall Saudi Arabia attempted to ease wide-spread international condemnation of its treatment of women by giving them a symbolic shot at the vote in 2014, things have pretty much remained unchanged.
But this week, the Saudi Industrial Property Authority (Modon) announced the creation of a “women only industrial city,” expected to create about 5,000 jobs in factories run and staffed completely by women.
The city will be equipped “for women workers… consistent with the privacy of women according to Islamic guidelines and regulations,” Modon said in a statement. The municipality will be built in the Eastern city of Hofuf, and is the first of many women-only cities slated to be built around the notoriously conservative kingdom.
- Of course when I first heard the news, my initial response was, “Is further gender segregation really the answer to Saudi Arabia’s fight for women’s rights? My instinct was that separating women will actually be a loss for Saudi women’s larger struggles, allowing men and society to avoid reconciling their larger issues with women’s mobility and empowerment. The Kingdom needs to do more to integrate women and girls, not increase their isolation.
However, the reality in Saudi Arabia is what it is and to be real, we all know things are not going to change overnight. Despite women waging a real and unrelenting fight, they face a difficult battle. And it is only going to get tougher.
Everyone knows that from driving to traveling to going to the doctor, practically every move a Saudi woman makes requires male permission. Many schools, colleges and offices are already segregated so why not just create an entire female utopia?
It might be the only tangible option in Saudi Arabia where despite the fact that almost 60 percent of the country’s university students are female, they only make up 15% of the workforce. Experts state that 78 percent of female university graduates in the country are unemployed.
The main goal of these women-only cities is to allow more of them to join the workforce, and gain financial independence without seriously disturbing the country’s stubborn gender segregation.
Samar Fatany, a Saudi radio host and one of the Kingdom’s prominent female voices, thinks that this is what empowerment looks like in Saudi eyes:
Their culture and environment won’t let them work any other way. It’s an opportunity to have an income, be financially independent. It’s an economic necessity.
This entire scenario reminds me of the work of Bangladeshi feminist pioneer and icon, Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1880-1932). She fought for the rights of Muslim
women through education, and her groundbreaking work, Sultana’s Dream, creates a female Utopian where the cultural practice of secluding women through purdah (Bengali for curtain) and hijab is reversed on men.
In the book, men are confined indoors and women take control over the public sphere. Sultana’s Dream describes a “Kingdom of Women,” a technologically advanced state where men are docile “servants” trained to cook, clean, and look after the house and children.
Saudi Arabia is apparently turning Begum Rokeya’s dream into a reality to an extent. Whether or not escalating sex segregation is the answer to the resolving the region’s long-standing gender struggle remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure, and that is these women-only cities definitely appear to offer some kind of appeasement to both the sexes, for now.