Saudi Arabia’s Gender Apartheid City

Frank Crimi in FrontPage

Saudi Arabia has taken its gender apartheid system to new heights with its plans to build an industrial city populated exclusively by female workers.

The all-female municipality, which will begin construction in 2013, is expected to provide Saudi women work and career opportunities in a country that actively strives to separate them publicly from men.

To that end, the gender-specific metropolis, which is expected to generate 5,000 jobs, will house textile, pharmaceutical and food processing industries run by “female entrepreneurs” and staffed with all-women production lines.

As yet, it’s still unclear how the all-female metropolitan labor force will arrive to work, given that Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving, prohibitions that include public lashings and prison sentences for offenders.

That being said, Saleh al-Rasheed, head of the Saudi Industrial Property Authority, which will oversee construction of the industrial city, expressed confidence that the future female employees would “demonstrate their efficiency in many light and clean industrial sectors that suit their interests, nature and capabilities.”

Of course, determining a Saudi woman’s professional interests and capabilities can prove problematic given the highly illogical, discriminatory and abusive lengths the Kingdom has gone to shutter women from societal participation.

That ill treatment manifests itself most visibly in the country’s notorious gender-segregation laws, strictly enforced by the Kingdom’s religious police, which require women in public to avoid all contact with men while draped in attire that conceals their entire body, save hands and eyes.

Moreover, compounding that troublesome issue, every woman in Saudi Arabia is required to have a male guardian — usually a husband, father or even a son — whose permission she must seek on issues ranging from what to wear, whether to work or study, whether or who to marry, or even whether to have surgery.

Not surprisingly then, being covered head-to-toe in a black robe, forbidden to interact with unrelated men and required to consult with a male guardian before making virtually any decision, makes finding employment a somewhat difficult proposition, which helps to explain why Saudi women constitute only 16.5 percent of the total national labor force.

So given all that, it comes as little surprise that the Saudi government would want to take its gender-apartheid system to its next logical step: building all-female industrial centers in which to further sequester women from societal view.

However, for its part, the Saudi government maintains that, evidence notwithstanding, it has been working tirelessly to level the gender playing field by creating numerous economic and political opportunities for Saudi women.

For example, Saudi officials point to their recent efforts to revolutionize the Kingdom’s retail industry, efforts which they claim have created thousands of job openings for Saudi women.

That innovation arrived in 2011 when the Ministry of Labor allowed women to work in lingerie and cosmetic shops in place of men, a stunningly bold move which was quickly followed in 2012 by women being permitted to replace men in stores selling abayas, the traditional plain black robe-like dress worn by Saudi women.

During that same period in 2011, the Saudi government embraced women’s suffrage when Saudi King Abdullah granted women the right to not only vote but also run in the 2015 local elections for the Majlis Al-Shura, a consultative council that advises the monarchy on matters of public policy.

Of course, it should be noted that women can only vote in the 2015 election after they have first secured the permission of their male guardian.

The Saudi government also allowed female athletes to participate for the first time in this year’s Olympic Games. However, this participation did come with some provisos, including that the women be accompanied by a male guardian, not consort with men and wear Sharia-compliant athletic gear.

Nonetheless, their participation in the Games was considered trailblazing, especially given the vehement religious objections by Saudi clerics to women engaging in sports. One such cleric described women’s participation as “immodest physical movement in front of unrelated males that threatens the purity, honor and health of the Saudi female.”

That belief, which holds wide sway throughout all strata of Saudi society, has led millions of Saudi women and girls to be banned by the General Presidency for Youth Welfare from playing sports in Saudi Arabia’s government schools, colleges and over 150 official sports clubs.

Some dismissed the Saudi government’s decision to allow women to participate in the Olympics as nothing more than a publicity stunt aimed at improving the country’s international image. Others argue that it was motivated less by a desire to be more gender-inclusive and more by the fact the country would have been prohibited from sending teams to future Games if it didn’t send at least one female athlete to London.

Still others have criticized the International Olympic Committee for even extending an invitation to the Saudis, noting that the IOC had banned South Africa’s apartheid regime from the Olympics, while it has remained suspiciously silent to the Saudi Arabian monarchy’s apartheid policies targeting Saudi women.

Now, unfortunately, Saudi Arabia’s gender-apartheid policies seem destined to become even more ingrained with the proposed building of an exclusively-female urban center, a concept that has apparently captured the Saudi government’s fancy.

To that end, Saleh al-Rasheed said the Saudi Industrial Property Authority is “now working on a second industrial city for women,” while the Saudi Ministry of Commerce and Industry is currently studying a proposal to set up an additional four such cities in the capital of Riyadh.

Those governmental decisions led Waleed Aboul Khair, Director of the Human Rights Observatory in Saudi Arabia, an NGO that supports women’s rights, to lament, “When you look around, nothing has changed and suppression has not changed.”

Unfortunately, not only has the suppression of women in Saudi Arabia not changed, but now the government is building new, large scale venues in which to continue that practice.

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