Sexual Apartheid in Saudi Arabia
Jess McCabe // 21 February 2006
Are women in Saudi Arabia slowly edging out of “sexual apartheid”, the Guardian asks today in a fascinating feature.
A male reporter, Brian Whitaker, reports on the women who are entering the workforce. And apartheid really is the word: women must work in their own sections. In one factory Whitaker visits, when a man enters, an alarm goes off to warn the workers to cover up.
Sabria Jawhar is “head of the ladies’ department” at the Saudi Gazette – although in that office, seclusion is voluntary and some female journalists work alongside their male counterparts, without veils.
So what’s driving the change? Women are a vastly underexploited resource. ” More than half the kingdom’s university graduates are female and yet women account for only about 5% of the workforce.” And: “Besides owning 60% of company shares in the kingdom, Saudi women collectively have $25bn in bank accounts – money that could be invested in new businesses.”
Whitakar also illuminates some of the unintended consequences of the policy of segregation. On the one hand, men and women have no experience interacting. Saudi men who go to the US to study do not understand that sexual harrassment is not acceptable. But on the other, women have carved out their own spaces:
Men and women, of course, do their partying separately. Men’s parties tend to be dull affairs. In Riyadh, male partygoers just sit around, Mr A says. In Jeddah they play cards. In Ha’il (in the north), they may do a bit of sword-dancing. Then they go home, usually by midnight. “The point is that you should always be sad,” Mr A grumbles.
Women’s parties are a different matter, and often carry on until 4am with dancing, female DJs and sometimes all-woman bands. “Even the most religious women, if it’s only drums, they get up and dance,” Mrs B said. “In the west it’s the young and beautiful who dance. Here, if you’re overweight it’s OK. The women are not doing it to show off. They’re doing it to enjoy themselves.”
And one of the ironies of Saudi Arabia’s sexual apartheid is that women’s parties are a no-go area for the men of the mutawa. They can’t raid a women’s party unless they suspect alcohol is present – and they are in serious trouble if their suspicions turn out to be wrong.
“In that area, women have more freedom,” Mrs B says. Later, Mr A suggests the partying is what holds Saudi women back. “They have too much fun,” he says, though he wouldn’t dare say it in Mrs B’s hearing. “I think that’s why they don’t complain more.”
Reuters reports a top ice-skating coach has said Russian women are too “strong and big” to win figure skating medals. Instead they’re better suited to the railways…
Russian women are not very good for figure skating,” Mishin told Reuters on Friday. “They are good for building rail tracks in Siberia, for example. They are just too strong and big.”