Aug 16 2012
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A lonely walk to equality?
When the Saudi Industrial Property Authority recently published a densely worded press release on its website, it can't have expected to make headlines around the world.
However, the institution's announcement that it was drawing up plans for the kingdom's "first industrial city being readied for women workers" sparked an international storm that once again placed the topic of the rights of Saudi Arabia's women at the top of the media agenda.
While the coverage of the announcement has been over-heated - talk of 'women-only cities' is a stretch, given that all that has been proposed are female-only industrial zones - it has once again underlined Saudi Arabia's separation of the sexes.
Some have cautiously welcomed the plan, grateful for anything that could potentially create jobs for women in a country where up to three-quarters of female university graduates are unemployed.
Ghalia Gargani, acting director of the gender and public policy programme at the Dubai School of Government, tells 7DAYS she favours a more nuanced view.
Gargani was buoyed by the fact that the Saudi authorities are acknowledging the need for women to enter the workforce, and said the women-only industrial zone could provide women with an opportunity to change the system from within.
However, she adds: "On the other hand, isolating and confining women to work in women-only cities in my opinion is not realistic, productive nor sustainable. I truly believe that reaching the full potential in any society means equal participation of both genders working side-by-side."
For F. Gregory Gause III, a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre in Qatar, the likely impacts of such a project are somewhat beside the point, given that he doesn't see how it can ever come to pass.
"I can't imagine how you could pull it off," he says. "It just sounds like something that when you get down to thinking about the practicalities just can't work."
Planning such developments ignores what Gause calls "the real issue".
"The issue is how do you get them into the existing workplace. Because if you are waiting for a complete separate city to be built that is way down the line and even then it is just not going to work."
In January this year, the Kingdom passed a decree allowing only women to work in lingerie shops. Saudi woman Reem Assad, who spearheaded the campaign that led to the change, said the new law created 44,000 new jobs in an instant. But against the backdrop of such modest successes, Gause warns the bigger issue of the mixing of the sexes will still have to be tackled.
"It is almost inevitable that in almost any job you are if you are a woman going to run into men. And it's getting past that obstacle that is the real hard thing," he says.
Dubai-based Gargani notes: "I have worked very closely with numerous Saudi women, some of whom are among the brightest and most intelligent and hard-working I have ever met."
But until a way of bringing more of them into the Saudi economy can be found, they will remain on the outside - stuck on the sidelines of their country's development.
DRIVERS COULD FACE LONG ROAD TO FREEDOM
Social media has given Saudi Arabia's women a new means of ensuring their struggle for greater rights is seen by people around the globe.
Over the last year numerous YouTube clips of Saudi women driving in contradiction of the country's strict ban on females taking the wheel have been watched by millions.
But Saudi Arabia expert F Gregory Gause III warns that such conspicuous protests should not necessarily lead the outside world to believe that a major breakthrough in women's rights is imminent.
"I think that there is a real movement for a greater role for women in the public sphere in Saudi Arabia and the women who are leading this movement are very brave and courageous - but I also think that they are relatively limited in number," he says.
"I see it as a very elite movement that at least right now doesn't have a whole lot of popular base behind it. I think many people sympathise with them - but I don't see people willing to kind of put themselves on the line for this issue, aside from these very brave women who have taped themselves driving."
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