Saudi Arabia’s City Of Women: Segregated or Empowered?

A fascinating social experiment is about to begin in the Arab state of Saudi Arabia.

Under Saudi Sharia law, women are accorded anything but equal rights – most famously, they must be chaperoned while outdoors and are forbidden to drive (although enforcement of the latter is lax in rural areas). Far more importantly, their economic freedom is severely curtailed: while some 70% of University attendees are female, women make up less than 15% of the workforce. Progressive? Hardly.

So, what to make of news that the Saudis are building a women-only industrial city in the Eastern Province of Hofuf – with similar plans for four more cities elsewhere? As the Guardian reports here, it’s a project developed by the Saudi Industrial Property Authority (MODON), from a proposal by a group of Saudi businesswomen. The stated aim is to provide a place for women to develop their own economic potential, including – to quote businesswoman Hussan al-Aun – “a specialised training centre to help women develop their talents and train them to work at factories. This is essential to cut unemployment among our female graduates.”

It’s very easy to see this as a cold-blooded money-grabbing move by a government keen to find an apparently progressive way to reinforce sexual segregation while boosting the economy – but is it that simple? Last year King Abdullah announced that from 2015, women could vote in local elections and consultative assemblies – and earlier this year a ban on employing women in lingerie and cosmetic shops was overturned. These are not token reforms.

It’s also important to note that the best way to start a revolution is to gather together members of an underdog class in one place and give them the tools to develop a power base – or, put another way by Zoe Williams at the Guardian:

…when you educate people, refuse to let them work and then suddenly unleash them, en masse, into economic productivity, that’s almost an open invitation to them to be better than you.

None of this will be lost to the pro-segregationists – and let’s not forget that this is the country where private companies are violating employment law by openly hiring only single or non-pregnant married women. However this plays out, there will be considerable pressure to undermine any unofficial independence movement for women, or the ascendancy of women’s rights in the Saudi workplace. But for now? In a region housing some of the world’s richest people, money brings respect – and demonstrating a flair for earning money could be exactly the way Saudi women could fight against systemic prejudice.

Image: zbigphotography

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.