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What are ‘women only’ cities?

A visit by the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, to Saudi Arabia in November 2012 generated a mixed reaction in the British press. The purpose of the visit was to try and persuade the Saudi government to spend £6 billion ($9.6 billion) on fighter jets to be supplied by the British aerospace industry and safeguard 300,000 jobs. The visit was applauded by the business lobby because of the clear advantages for the British economy but attacked by human rights groups unhappy about the support this gave to the Saudi ruling family, which, they believe, has a very poor record on human rights. The visit came just after reports in several newspapers of plans to build ‘women only’ cities in Saudi Arabia to overcome gender segregation and bring more women into the workforce. Saudi Arabia is very sensitive to criticism of its human rights record and this case study focuses on gender inequality in the country – but also on what a ‘women only’ city actually means.

Recent changes in Saudi Arabia

The news that King Abdullah had granted women the right to vote in municipal elections starting in 2015 was greeted as good news for women’s rights by some people but also as a reminder of the inequalities suffered by women in Saudi Arabia. Human rights groups have compiled a long list of gender inequalities in Saudi Arabia.

The country is governed under strict Sunni Islamic laws by King Abdullah who is advised by the Shura Council, an all-male group of appointed members. Municipal elections are the only public elections held in Saudi Arabia (they were first held in 2005) and the winners fill half the seats on local councils. The other half of the seats are appointed by the government. Elections are held every four years with the next elections due to be held in 2015. The King has stated his intention of including women in the Shura council after a 2010 ruling that sharia law did not prevent their participation.


Allowing women to take part in some elections represents a big change in Saudi society but it does need to be seen as part of a bigger picture. Women have to have permission from a male guardian, usually the husband or father but occasionally a son, before they can go out to work, get married, travel, have a major operation or make many other big decisions. Some action has been taken to reduce the power of guardians but Saudi society is so conservative that many of the officials that women have to see in the course of their lives still demand to see evidence of consent.

Women banned from driving

Women are banned from driving in the country. No law bars women from driving, but senior government clerics have implemented the ban. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world to prohibit women from driving. The reason for the ban is the belief that giving women freedom of movement makes them more vulnerable to sin. In June 2011 a civil disobedience campaign started in an attempt to get the ban overturned but in September 2011 a woman found driving a car in Jeddah was sentenced to be lashed ten times. It was the first time a legal punishment had been given as police usually stop women driving cars, question them for a while and then let them go after they have signed a pledge not to drive again. The sentence was eventually overturned by the King but the ban is still in force. In rural areas the ban is less likely to be enforced.

Gender segregation

Saudi Arabia has segregated schools, universities, offices, restaurants and even has separate entrances to public buildings for men and women. The genders are segregated in public and government offices and segregation is also encouraged in private businesses. Many women claim that employers are reluctant to employ women because of the strict gender segregation in all parts of Saudi society.

Employment opportunity

Only 14% of the Saudi workforce is female even though 58% of graduates in Saudi are female and the world’s largest female-only university was opened in Riyadh in 2011. Gender segregation is not the only barrier to work for women. Women are only allowed to work provided it does not lead to the neglect of their work as homemaker and they have the permission of their guardian. Officially, a woman’s work should not lead to her travelling without a close male relative, although in practice this is not always the case. Any work done by women must also be ‘suitable for the female physique and mentality’. Teaching and nursing are common professions for those women that do work but it is forbidden to appoint women as judges or to positions of high public office. In 2010 a law was passed that allows female lawyers to practise in specially constituted courts where they can represent other women.

Participation in sport

Sarah Attar and Wojdan Shaherkani were the first Saudi women to take part in any Olympics when they represented their country in London in 2012. If they had not been allowed to take part, Saudi Arabia would have been the only one of the 204 competing countries not to have any female representatives. Their participation attracted a range of opinions concerned about whether this represented an important advance for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Participation in any sport is very difficult for any Saudi woman. The ministry of education bans physical education for girls. The rationale behind the ban ranges from claims that sport will lead to corrupt morals and lesbianism, to it being masculine and damaging for female health and psyche.

The main rationale, though, is that introducing physical education is a slippery slope that will eventually lead it to becoming common to see Saudi women practise and compete in sports publicly in front of men. In a country where all state schools mandate fully covering the face, the thought of Saudi women running in a conservative tracksuit with the face showing is simply too much for many to handle.

Eman Al Nafjan, The Guardian, 31 July 2012

The two women who did take part in the Olympic Games came under enormous pressure from those who opposed their participation. Both women were featured under an Arabic Twitter hashtag that translates as ‘Olympic whores’. The issue highlights the conflict between the King and some other members of the ruling group who appear willing to make some concessions to reducing gender inequality and very conservative elements in Saudi society who want to maintain the ‘traditional’ way of life.

‘Women only cities’

The Saudi Industrial Authority (MODON) published a press release in August 2012 that appeared to herald a major change in attitudes to women in the workplace. The ambiguous headline read;

MODON’ begins Planning and Development for the first industrial city being readied for women workers in the Kingdom.

The headline gave rise to a number of newspapers highlighting the development of ‘women only’ cities and giving detailed consideration to how such places would function and the implications for Saudi society.

Entrance to the ‘women only’ city in Hofuf

The reality turned out to be less radical than the initial interpretation of the press release. The first ‘women only’ city is essentially a female-only industrial zone in Hofuf that will eventually employ about 5,000 Saudi women in the textile, pharmaceutical and food-processing industries. Special sections and production halls will be reserved for women but it is not intended as a women-only development. It is intended that women will run the companies and factories and live in adjacent neighbourhoods to make travelling to work easier.

‘I’m sure that women can demonstrate their efficiency in many aspects and clarify the industries that best suit their interests, nature, and ability’.
Saleh al-Rasheed, deputy director-general of the Saudi Industrial Property Authority (MODON)

MODON claims that Saudi Arabia’s ruling monarchy has embraced the concept as a way of lowering female unemployment (officially 29.6%) while staying ‘consistent with the privacy of women according to Islamic guidelines and regulations’. The government has plans for more developments that are suitable for a female workforce and other measures to increase female employment have also been announced. These include a law restricting work in lingerie and cosmetic shops to women only and a plan to replace foreign salespeople with Saudi women. There are already some factories in Saudi Arabia’s existing cities that are owned by women and a study for the government by consulting firm Booz and Co said the Saudi government ‘should seek to create a supportive cultural environment for women and commit to overcoming the existing customs and social barriers that hamper women’s success.’

Women-only cities and other attempts to include more women in the workforce are the result of an economic need to make use of a well-educated female workforce but also because of pressure from human rights groups and governments from other countries who believe that the Saudi attitude to women is an indefensible anachronism in a modern society.

Not just gender inequality

Gender inequality is not the only issue raised by human rights groups. Over a third of the Saudi population is made up of 9 million immigrant workers, mostly from Africa and Asia. They provide the labour on construction sites, sweep roads, serve in coffee shops and provide cheap domestic labour. They are drawn by the comparative wealth of the country. Their wages are very low, £100-£200 ($160-$320) a month and they have virtually no employment rights. They are crucial to their home economies because of the £17 billion ($27 billion) remittances they send home every year. It is not difficult to find shocking cases of abuse and cruelty reported in the press.

Last weekend a 54-year-old Indonesian maid was beheaded by sword for killing her female boss with a cleaver. Ruyati binti Sapubi had, an Islamic court heard, endured years of abuse before finally attacking her ‘madam’, as the maids call their employers, when denied permission to return home.
Jason Burke, The Observer, 25 June 2011

Amnesty International and other human rights groups have criticized the justice system in Saudi Arabia for the brutality of the sentences it gives to immigrants and Saudi citizens, with the 2 million Shi’a population particularly vulnerable. Human rights groups claim that detainees, including children, commonly face systematic violations of due process and fair trial rights, including arbitrary arrest, torture and ill-treatment while in detention. Under Saudi law children can be arrested and sentenced as if they were adults if there are physical signs of puberty. At least 61 people were executed in Saudi Arabia between January and October 2012.

Gender inequality and the abuse of the rights of other groups briefly described in this case study is not a simple issue. It never is when religion, history and culture are important factors affecting the development of groups within a country. Saudi Arabia is a country where religion and culture have a firm grip on social development and the government’s relationship with its own population, its Arab neighbours and the wider global community is complex and open to different interpretations. It is necessary to read as widely as possible to gain a better understanding of the issues. There is a huge amount of material available and the list below provides some recent press reports and comment that may be useful.

Web sites and news articles that may be of interest

An article by Homa Khaleeli from The Guardian

An article from The Guardian by Caroline Davies that was one of the first to report on the ‘women only’ cities

Article from the Daily Mail by David Baker

Article from The Week about proposed ‘women only cities’.

Al Arabiya article pointing out that new cities were not ‘women only’.

Other articles about the proposed ‘city’:

Wikipedia section on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia

Human Rights Watch 2012 report on Saudi Arabia

Article from Tribune claiming that women are to be recruited to the religious police force in Saudi Arabia

An interesting blog by Ed Husain in The Atlantic online magazine, 28 September 2011