Saudi Arabia has an increasingly educated female population, but its ultraconservative interpretation of Wahabi sharia law and rigid tribal customs forbid women from interacting with men. The upshot is chronic female unemployment. An utterly Saudi solution is underway. Why shift cultural mores, when, instead, you can raise up a completely new, self-sustaining city that will be fully devoid of men? The pilot project will go live in 2012 in the Eastern Province city of Hofuf. Smaller “ladies-only” communities will then pop up in capital city Riyadh.
Saudi businesswomen cooked up the concept, according to the paper Al Eqtisadiah, and the ruling monarchy endorsed the scheme as a way to lower female unemployment while staying “consistent with the privacy of women according to Islamic guidelines and regulations,” Saudi Industrial Property Authority (Modon) said in a statement. Modon is leading the project development.
“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, Modon Deputy Director General told the Guardian.
The Hofuf industrial zone will potentially employ 5,000 Saudi women in pharmaceutical, food-processing and textile industries, all of which will be female-managed. There will be places to eat, to shop, and to pray, but no mention of childcare facilities or recreation centers. The women are expected to live in adjacent neighborhoods. But who will drive them to work?
“Restrictions on women’s lives and productivity are so extreme – Saudi women need a male guardian’s permission to travel, seek employment, or marry – that the country is letting a potentially huge sector of the productive economy sit idle”, wrote Sarah Goodyear in The Atlantic. Women make up over 60% of college graduates in the country and 78% of them are unemployed. Only 15% of the Saudi workforce is female.
Saudi has all-female factories and the largest women-only university in the world, but all-female communities on this scale have never been attempted.
“Hofuf will be exceedingly productive,” predicts writer Zoe Williams in The Guardian. “As an industrial town with no men in it, it will presumably contain none of those mini-impediments to productivity known as ‘children.’” She foresees a future where these Saudi women “will be South Korea to their male counterparts’ North.”
Critics envisage that the project will either economically fail, or succeed fiscally and further segregate women from free public living. Homa Khaleeli of The Guardian offers this provocative suggestion, “Women should flock to them, close the doors, and refuse to leave until the kingdom’s rulers understand just what it is like to live without women.”
Is it a positive step for women? Depends on your point of view. What did you think of America’s special drinking fountains for “coloreds”? Was apartheid a winning proposition? A segregated city will never be as creative as one where different people can freely exchange ideas, unconstrained.
A year ago, King Abdullah announced that women would be able to vote in the 2015 local elections. In January, laws were enacted allowing Saudi women to be employed in lingerie and cosmetic shops, following a campaign by the women’s rights activist Reem Asaad, and by the end of 2012 women will replace salesmen in stores selling abayas too. Here again is that funny “perspective” phenomenon: the latter action could be viewed as progress in opening employment opportunities, or as a move towards further separation of the sexes.
Ponder the possibilities: educated women, soon to be placed into economic production. Once these women get a taste of professional autonomy and experience financial independence, what cracks in the machine will ensue? Or will they be predestined to failure like their Saudi Olympian sisters: pushed into a corporate arena for which they’ve not been trained to compete.
I’m heading to Turkey this week, and in my lazy pre-trip research I see that the Amazons founded the city of Ephesus. It’s one of my stops, and one of many single-sex towns allegedly built by that all-babe warrior nation that featured large in Greek mythology.
Maybe, centuries on, Saudi Ladytowns will be the stuff of legend too.
Image of Arab women from Shutterstock