More gender segregation: Saudi Arabia is planning on establishing 4 industrial cities for women

An example of a barrier in Saudi Arabia built to ensure privacy

By Iqbal Tamimi

It seems that the
Saudi media rhetoric regarding reform and claims of reconsidering women’s human
rights are mere sedative promises. Women are still treated like minors and men
are still seen as predators. 
Saudi daily  “Alwatan”, said yesterday, 20 June 2012, that the Ministry of Trade and Industry in Saudi Arabia is considering a proposal to establish four industrial cities in Riyadh for women, and that the proposal has been submitted to Minister of Trade and Industry and awaiting his approval.

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Most offices,
banks, and universities in Saudi Arabia have separate entrances for men and
women. According to law, there should be physically and visually separate
sections for the sexes at all meetings including weddings and funerals. This
segregation affected women and their rights, especially regarding training and
learning opportunities, exchanging knowledge and skills with colleagues from
the other gender, and the fact that there are hardly any Saudi women in top managerial
and decision making posts.

In Saudi Arabia,
even public transportation and public places such as beaches and amusement
parks are segregated, sometimes by time, so that men and women attend at
different hours. Violating the principles of sex segregation, known as khalwa, is
punishable by law.

Alwatan daily
quoted the Chairman of the National Industry Council of Saudi Chambers and Vice
Chairman of the Riyadh Chamber, Mr Saad Almoajjel, as saying ‘creating those
four industrial cities for women in four areas of Riyadh, is aiming at solving
the problem of the high rate of unemployment among Saudi women’. According to
2009 data, the unemployment rate in Saudi Arabia, is more than 10 per cent, and
78 per cent of Saudi women university graduates are unemployed.

According to Saudi
Industrial Property Authority regulations, factories for women require a
different set of controls to approve their licenses. Those controls should
guarantee total segregation and no mixing between men and women, during
building the plant or after it starts running. The regulations require building
high walls to block the vision between men and women. The design of the
building should have barriers made in a manner that allows access to cars and
vehicles used for loading and downloading – driven by men – into the factories,
making sure at the same time that the men will not be able to have a glimpse of
any woman. The women must be on the other side of the barrier when men download
or upload.

The regulations demand
strict security at gates, where only ‘very trust worthy men’ are employed to
control and monitor the vehicles coming in and out, in addition to managing
unforeseen emergencies and crises, such as if a fire broke.

Alwatan Daily
explains the handling procedures in the new facilities “The gates between
men drivers and the women working at the factories will be closed, the raw
materials can be downloaded from the trucks after the drivers –men- enter the
factories’ premises, and until they finish downloading or uploading, women will
be on the other side of the barrier to prevent mixing between them, and all
communication needed is going to be made by phone”.

It seems that one
driver working for few minutes with a considerable number of women is considered
like a Khalwah between one man and one woman in a private place. This does not
make any sense, since at Pilgrimage millions of Muslim men and women gather
annually since 14 centuries to pray at the same place and at the same time
without any physical barriers between them.

The fact that men
and women can communicate by phone raises some interesting debatable questions
regarding which senses are considered more dangerous, and which has stronger
effect regarding arousing sexual temptations between a man and a woman. It
seems in this case, that seeing a woman is perceived as more ‘dangerous’ than
hearing her. This perception contradicts the views of prominent Abbasid poet,
Bashar Ben Burd, who is considered a reference on flirting poetry, wrote in his
famous poem about a singer he loved her voice ‘The ear fall in love before the
eye sometimes’.

In social life,
segregation is part of the Saudi traditions. Most Saudi homes have one entrance
for men and another for women and the private space is associated with women
while the public space, such as the living rooms, is reserved for men.
Traditional house designs use high walls, compartmentalized inner rooms, and
curtains to protect the family and particularly women from the public.

Segregation is
strict in restaurants, since eating requires removal of the veil. Most
restaurants in Saudi Arabia have “family” and “bachelor”
sections, the latter for men only, those who arrive without their wives,
sisters, mothers, or daughters (whether married or not). Women have to sit in
the family section always, but restaurants usually bar entrance to women who
come without their husbands or Mahram (male relative such as a father or a
brother or a son).

Western companies
on Saudi land must comply with Saudi religious regulations. Fast-food
restaurants such as McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, and other US firms, for
instance, maintain sex-segregated eating zones in their restaurants. The
facilities in the women’s section are usually lower in quality.

Exceptions to
segregation rules and the number of mixed-gender workplaces have increased
since King Abdullah was crowned, although they are still unusual. It has been
claimed that several newspaper publishers have desegregated their offices. But
the opening of the first co-educational university in 2009 caused an eruption the
strongest debate over segregation.

Strangely enough,
Sheikh Ahmad Qassim Al-Ghamdi, chief of the Makkah region’s Hai’a, told Saudi
daily newspaper Okaz that segregation has no basis in Shariah, or Islamic law,
and has been incorrectly applied in the Saudi judicial system. “Mixing was part
of normal life for the Ummah and its societies,” Al-Ghamdi told Okaz.

There are contradictions that can’t be explained
regarding segregation in Saudi society. Such as women have men drivers since
women are banned from driving themselves. And many households have maids, who
mix with the non-mahram men of the households, though maids, taxi drivers, and
waiters tend to be foreigners, which is sometimes used as a justification or an
excuse for lack of segregation when it suits them.

The considerable
number of published news articles and reports of men and women caught in ‘Khalwa’
can be a good pointer, that segregation does not prevent men and women from
meeting or communicating, even under the strictest rules and strict segregation
is not the perfect policy claimed to protect women.

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