Saudi Arabia already has segregated schools, universities, offices, restaurants and entrances to public buildings. Women are refused driving licenses and not allowed to leave the house unless escorted by a male relative.
With such strict laws governing what women can do, wear or where they can go, it’s no surprise that just 15% of the workforce is female – despite 60% of graduates being women.
But 78% of these graduates are unemployed; this is a pressure cooker for social unrest and the ruling family knows it.
Does this extreme segregation sound familiar? Under the ‘Jim Crow’ Laws in the US south there was massive racial divide ensuring ‘separate but equal’ institutions for black and white people. In reality the institutions were far from equal.
Increasing segregation by providing women-only workplaces does nothing to challenge the fundamentally sexist basis of Saudi society.
These zones will simply reinforce the ‘right’ of men to dictate women’s lives, maintaining women as a second-class social group, dictated to by men.
Just like in the US during the 1960s Saudi women, supported by a strong international solidarity movement, need to resist plans to herd them into ghettos. They should demand the right to be treated as equal to men under the law, to work alongside men, and even to have responsible positions above men.
Building such a movement won’t be an easy or a quick processs – but it’s absolutely necessary.
Protests early in 2011 during the Arab Spring showed that there’s an undercurrent of resistance in Saudi society – this attempt to legitimise gender segregation could yet be the spark for further protests.
Curiously silent in all this is the USA – the so-called global defender of freedom is Saudi Arabia’s strongest ally, and donates billions of dollars worth of military aid to the regime every year. This aid was recently used to brutally crush an uprising in neighbouring Bahrain, and the government will not hesistate to turn it’s guns on it’s own people.
But the women of Saudi Arabia do not fear guns and bombs – when their lives are in every other way controlled by a reactionary regime. They will be inspired by the women of Egypt and Tunisia who stood in the front lines to make their own democratic revolutions.
The only progressive solution is the fight for equality between all genders. But this aim is inseperable from the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy, and it’s replacement by a democratic regime. This revolutionary struggle will have women at its heart, or it will not happen at all.