Saudi Arabia plans female-only city

Last updated 12:36 20/08/2012
Saudi Arabian women

DIVISION: "Workplaces are divided, as are banks" - a group of Saudi women walk down the street.

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They're banned from driving. This year is the first time they've been allowed to compete in the Olympics. And they've only just got the vote. Does Saudi Arabia hate women?

Apparently not. Saudi newspaper al-Eqtisadiah reports that the Saudi Industrial Property Authority (Modon) is planning the construction of a city exclusively limited to females. No, no, it's not some sort of cage for wayward teenagers, a mega-harem, or a place to put old ladies without families. The feminopolis will be created so that women can work while still living in accordance with strict Sharia law.

Befuddled by this proposition, I did some research. Why can't women work with men? Is it because of cultural values around women's domestic responsibility? Traditional ideals of men being the only breadwinners?

The answer: purdah, the cultural concept of segregation of the sexes, is central to the Islamic society. Unrelated men and women can be charged by the Mutawwa (religious police) for mingling. Women are not allowed to talk to members of the opposite sex in private or public places - unless they're married or a direct blood relative.

Restaurants have a men's section and a 'family' section (where single women can go), workplaces are divided, as are banks. In an effort to retain the law of the Quran, Saudi Arabian society attempts to regulate personal interactions.

But the times are changing.

The Saudi education and medicine industries are the main industries where women are welcomed. But early this year, King Abdullah issued a royal decree which deemed that only Saudi women aged 20-35 could work in lingerie and cosmetic stores, adding to the list of approved jobs for women.

You reckon it's not a big deal? The New York Times called the ruling a 'social revolution', indicating the significance of the growing acceptance of working women - and now the ladies have broken into the retail sector.

In May, Head of the Saudi National Guard Prince Mitaab Bin Abdullah announced that he is planning to create a department that will allow the recruitment of female soldiers. This is another of many labour reforms in the country's bid to become a "dynamic market economy".

The country is actively engaging its citizens to participate in the workforce. Approximately 15% of employed people are female, and the only way for this percentage to go is up.

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While the proposed lady-only city brings to mind a bizarre vision of gendered apartheid, (or what this blogger calls "something Alabama in the 1950s would have done.") the biggest segregation of the sexes the world has ever seen represents an evolution of values.

The municipality is estimated to create roughly 5,000 jobs in various industries. It will be an opportunity for young, educated women to use their degrees. It will be a place where females can actively pursue a career in management, commerce or law enforcement without fear of the mighty Mutawwa.

While Saudia Arabia is known for being averse to changes that bring women into public consciousness, King Abdullah's government have made it plain that it envisions women playing an active role in the development of the country. Activists hope that being employed will empower women to speak up and be active in society.

Human Rights Watch has this to say about women in Saudi society:

The Saudi guardianship system continues to treat women as minors. Under this discriminatory system, girls and women of all ages are forbidden from traveling, studying, or working without permission from their male guardians.

Perhaps women will be emboldened to have a voice and contribute to the way their country is run. Bring on more courageous ladies who are keen to shake things up.

Saudi Arabia's societal structures surrounding women are changing. It may not be the way we'd do it. And it may be mighty slow. But change? Well, that's all we can ask for.

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