Gender Apartheid is the best word to describe the situation in Saudi Arabia. I don’t believe there is any other place in the world where gender decides everything a person does on a daily basis and to the minutest details. To the outside world this manifests in the ban on women driving and the compulsory abaya. However it goes much deeper than that in that gender discrimination is institutionalized in every sector of the Saudi government. The majority of government ministries are off limits to women, both as visitors and as employees. Women are assigned a side building that is usually in the back with a separate entrance and it’s usually cramped. Moreover, when a woman needs to get her own papers done, these women sections are only authorized to do the most routine and mechanical administration. As an example let me tell you about a close friend of mine; she happens to be a Saudi who was born in another country and as such carries dual nationality. She went to renew her other passport and the embassy noticed that there was a discrepancy between her Saudi passport date of birth and her birth certificate by a few days. They insisted that this discrepancy had to be corrected before they could issue her a new passport. So naturally she took her Saudi passport and her original birth certificate to the ministry of foreign affairs. Of course she didn’t go through the main door like the men but to a small building to the side, added like an afterthought. That’s bad but it can be tolerated since it’s basically an aesthetic issue. But what was really frustrating for my friend was that the women working inside told her they were powerless to help her. They told her that her husband, brother, or father has to go to the men’s section to get her passport birth date corrected. Of course, she got upset because at the time she was separated from her husband, she does not have a brother and she didn’t want to bother her father with such a mundane errand.
This scenario is extremely common; Najla Barasain here gives an account of how pointless the women’s section is at the ministry of higher education. And I’ve personally visited the women’s section at the ministry of education and they too had no decision-making power. Neither did female heads of departments at the women’s sections of universities. They were there just for appearances sake. Any real decisions had to come through the men’s section.
This translates to the impossibility of Saudi women getting hired, transferred, starting a business and even properly quitting without the total support of a man. When I had to get some paperwork done, I resorted to hiring a stranger and giving him a cell phone and my file. He would go to the offices that I directed him to, call me and then hand the cell phone to the official behind the desk. I couldn’t call the officials at their office numbers because frankly they rarely answered. And so this guy I hired would go from one official to the next at my instructions like a remote controlled robot. All this because as a woman, I am prohibited from entering a government ministry.
There is little likelihood that this will change anytime soon. Shiekh Al Barrak recently issued a fatwa stating that those who call for the mixing of genders even in the workplace should be killed. The Fatwa led the government to censor the shiekh’s website, but that did not stop him. He just moved to another website. Moreover 27 other fundamentalist shiekhs signed a petition in support of Al Barrack’s violent fatwa. Al Barack himself is the last living member of the traditional, misogynist eighties rat pack of sheikhdom. However he has a loyal following within the muttawas of Nejd. His call for the death of gender mixing people has been linked by some to the burning of a literary club tent in Al Jouf. Feelings run high when it comes to women’s rights issues in Saudi Arabia. For every Saudi willing to speak up for women’s rights, there is a Saudi willing to attempt murder to shut them up.
To read more about Saudi gender apartheid check a translation of Dr. Fawzia Al Bakr’s article here.