Gender Apartheid

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.


Filed under Culture, Gender Apartheid

52 responses to “Gender Apartheid

  1. I find government departments incredibly difficult to deal with and I am a man, I can only imagine how hard it is for women here.

    I find it shameful how the beautiful teachings of our religion are twisted into rules to suit local culture and “tradition”.

  2. Good post.
    Legal red tape drives everybody mad all over the world, but this is worse than ”kafka-esque”!!!

  3. Hala

    I wonder how we can change this, This is the best description of the women situation in Saudi that I have come across until now, great post…

  4. Ukht

    I am not an Arab and i moved here from the west very recently. Like everywhere there is good and bad but what worries me is the ‘shirky’ veneration of the Saudi ulema among some muslims in the west. I am not saying that the Saudi ulema have no beneficial knowledge and even if they are wrong Allah will still portion reward for their intentions but it is so blatently obvious that due to SOME of their cultural traditions there is a very OBVIOUS bias in their fataawa- ESPECIALLY where women are concerned. But with this so evidently clear, Muslims in the west blindly follow these scholars and go against all their reason, logic and islamic knowlege to justify what is evident manipulation and extreme wrangling of the sharee’ah in order to make the women mute in almost all aspects of life. I certainly do not agree with men and women intermingling without certain boundaries or without purpose, but it is more of a fitnah (trial) to place harsh and extreme restrictions on society and women in particular. Soon enough cracks will appear and the bottom will completely fall out, and that would be a great shame. Furthermore, there needs to be more emphasis on men training their nafs (base desires) rather than the whole ‘since women are a fitnah it is for the benefit of society that women do X, Yand Z’ argument.

  5. lark

    I can’t help but think of the other apartheid system, South Africa. When I was young it was common for demonstrators to agitate for sanctions against South Africa. I know that that would not happen with Saudi Arabia because the world is so thirsty for oil. But I wonder if there is any role at all for international pressure?

    btw, the New York Times published a piece on Saudi by Maureen Dowd.

  6. great post, you describe it as it is. The problem is that there will be no solution anytime soon thanx to albarak and his alike

  7. Laura Maniscalco

    I am an Italian woman and I have learned about your blog from an article on the Italian newspaper Repubblica. I Thank you very much for the way you describe a world so far from mine. Maybe I’m wrong but I fear that the status of women in Saudi Arabia has worsened over the last 50 years. I want to know what we can do to help you.


    Laura Maniscalco

    • Peter

      Lets see,
      Eliminate all radical and drug trafficking groups in the world, end corruption, stop all wars, end world hunger, prosecute rape and child molestation as a death sentence offence, end child labor and yes, “put more women in power”.
      In the last Presidential Election, more women voted for Obama than for Clinton. We need to get people on the same page if we want to move the world in a different direction.
      Good luck with finding the answer.

  8. Jackie

    I am an American woman who is very interested in learning about your culture and would like to know more about your challenges as women in an Arab nation.

    I am very sympathetic to your plight as you face discrimination on a daily basis because you are a woman.

    I have experienced discrimination in America because I am a woman, but nothing close to what you describe.

    Please know that I am here to help in any way I can. My heart goes out to you.

    • Usman

      “Please know that I am here to help”

      Nothing against you personally, but I can’t help leaving a comment whenever I read such ironic sentence written by Americans.

    • The Qu’ran says:

      “Let not the believers take the disbelievers as Auliya (supporters, helpers, etc.) instead of the believers, and whoever does that will never be helped by Allah in any way, except if you indeed fear a danger from them. And Allah warns you against Himself (His Punishment), and to Allah is the final return.” (3:28)

      We Muslims, men or women, should never take non-Muslims as helpers.

  9. Cheri

    I am so grateful to have found this blog, as I am an American and I am fascinated by (and very sympathetic to) the lives women lead in Saudi Arabia. Until now, I have never found a place where I could read about the matters of the day to day life there, even the small things that are often not talked about.

    I am particularly interested in learning about how Saudi women cope with this. As someone who has never experienced discrimination at all (I know there are American women who have experienced it, but I have not personally), I find it very hard to imagine what such a life would be like. I do as I please, all the time and in every way; I am self-employed and unmarried, and frankly I cannot tolerate being told what to do – ever. My lifestyle, which I do not take for granted, is so vastly foreign to the ones I read about here. I cannot imagine how I would psychologically cope in these situations, and I wonder if perhaps it is somewhat easier to cope with the restrictions if you have never known the freedom.

    In any case, I find this blog fascinating and informative, and I am so grateful for the bravery it shows. I plan to read this regularly, and I will be thankful for all I can learn here.

  10. Wow…. I am so saddened to hear about the state of affairs for women in your country. God bless you and STAY STRONG. I wish we Americans could help. What can we do?

    I pray that God will protect you and bless you. You matter to God and you are loved and valued by God.

    • Usman

      “I wish we Americans could help. What can we do?”

      Afghans, Iraqis, and Palestinians are already enjoying your “help”. So, if you really wanna HELP somebody then for god’s sake do one thing; Mind Your Country’s Business and let the people around the world make their own efforts for their benefit.

      • Debbie

        Surely you realize that all “Americans” do not agree with our leaders all the time. Americans as a rule do not want war. We want peace. It is our government that makes those decisions. I would love nothing more than for our government to “mind our country’s business”, but it’s not up to me or any other individual citizens of the US. (Trust me, my congressmen and the President often receive e-mails from me but they are not listening) When an individual offers to “help” it’s our way of saying that we support the movement. There are some individuals that will have the means to help the situation, but most of us can offer prayers to soften the hard hearts.

    • By “God”, you mean demi-god Jesus, right?

      May Allah guide you towards Islaam.

  11. Rebecca Mueller

    I am an American but I’ve also lived overseas and I have found that wherever you go you can encounter people who like to use fear to control others weather it is an entire population or just a member or two of their family. Usually people who use fear in this way are also themselves effected by fear, fear of change, fear of loosing power, fear that the old ways of doing things are the only right way to do it. People in leadership positions especially religious leaders of all religions fall into this trap.

  12. Debbie

    My mother grew up during the Women’s sufferage movement in the United States. Many women were jailed, beaten and even killed in their fight for equal rights. Men and women with courage stood up for what was right. The rumblings within your country are growing strong. Some day things will change. It will not be easy but anything worthwile rarely is easy. Stay strong and know that there are people all over the world who support equal rights for all humans.

  13. Lauren

    The regulations that hold the women hostage there have nothing to do with morals or religion:
    They are strictly about POWER. The men want to keep all powers in their hands, and because it sounds so terrible, they lie saying it’s about morals and religion.

    Religion cannot be enforced by fear of death or imprisonment-it is strictly a matter of faith. And no threats can create a faithful Muslim. Either they believe or they do not. Which goes to prove that all those who “enforce religion” are only interested in the submission of their victims, not in their faith or well-being.

    • The Qu’ran lies when addressing women with the following?

      “And stay in your houses, and do not display yourselves [make not a dazzling display] like that of the times of ignorance.” (33:33)

      These are reasons for social restrictions when it comes to gender-mixing. It’s just not all people are intelligent enough to understand the wisdom behind it.

  14. I am so happy to have discovered your blog! As a multi-published, award-winning author in America, I am currently working on a novel set in Saudi Arabia (the fourth in my current series, which begins releasing in April 2010). I’ve never been to the Saudi Kingdom and was encouraged by many to set the book in a more accessible Muslim country, but I felt strongly that I wanted to keep it in SA because of the level of female repression there. I was hard-pressed even to find someone to serve as an authenticity reader from that country, but I finally did. I’m about 20 percent into the book now, and your blog is going to be one of my main resources from here on out. Thank you for your courage to do this!

    • Hello Kathi,
      Be careful about where you set your novel within Saudi and that your authenticity reader is actually from that area. And I also recommend that you read Girls of Riyadh by Raja Al Sanea. Even though most Saudis won’t admit it, it is very close to the reality of how women live in Riyadh.

      • Thank you for the caution. And yes, I have read Girls of Riyadh. My reader recommended it to me. She is very reputable and lived there for many years. I also have “Princess” and other books by Jean Sasson, and several other books. About half of the story will take place in the United States via an Internet connection with my primary Saudi character. I have just completed a book set in South Africa, one in the Mayan culture of Mexico, and one in China. All were difficult to capture, but Saudi Arabia is the most difficult. I know this blog will be a big help!

    • Usman

      Me too!,
      …..writing a novel depicting culture and everyday life in America. Even though neither I understand English nor I ever have been in America, but this simply is not a problem at all since I watch Sex And The City regularly with the help of a translator. I think it would be of great help.

      My question to you is, Do I make any sense?

      • Congratulations! I know this won’t be an easy task for you, particularly if American TV is your primary source for research. What you see on TV is deplorable and represents the lives of only a small percentage of most Americans. I would be horrified to think anyone imagined that I live the way they do on Sex and the City. But depending on your story line, it may help. I wish you the best in your undertaking of writing a novel!

  15. As usual an excellent post that approaches a common topic with greater insight and depth.

    For every Saudi willing to speak up for women’s rights, there is a Saudi willing to attempt murder to shut them up.
    A particularly powerful statement, and image.

  16. Usman

    Kathi Macias has terribly missed the point in the post above!

    • I apologize, my friend. Can you explain/clarify? I’m here to learn, and I appreciate all input and information.

      • Usman

        I thought you being a writer will understand easily but anyway, I should break it down for you. I won’t go long or it would be violation of comment policy here.
        Just like I should be ridicule for writing about Americans merely by the help of TV & translator without even knowing the language and culture, the same should hold for you.
        Why don’t you actually go to Kingdom and talk to women face to face, or at least learn the language to understand them in their words instead milking money out of tone down stereotypes.
        BTW you are writing fiction, and you can sell almost any nonsense in US, so here is a Tip; stretch it to fantasy, give Saudis, tail and horns…, people will buy it anyway!

  17. Ukht

    …..writing a novel depicting culture and everyday life in America. Even though neither I understand English nor I ever have been in America, but this simply is not a problem at all since I watch Sex And The City regularly with the help of a translator. I think it would be of great help.

    lol! Usman I completely share your sentiment! The struggle for womens rights will be a fight for saudi women in their OWN way. More orientalist hogwash will only ‘fan the flames’.

  18. Jackie

    Usman- I am very imterested to hear why you are so cynical and hateful towards the American posters here on this Blog. Why are you judging us based on our governments actions?

    • Usman

      That’s the best you could make out of my commentary?
      Don’t Americans Judge other nations based on the actions of their government? In KSA or any other non-democratic state, people can claim that their government doesn’t represent their will at all. How dare you can claim the same in democratic state? OK, not you, but at least half of your people do support in one way or other the policies of the government in power or it would simply not be elected in first place.
      My comment above to Ms. Novelist is legitimate and will intended.

      • I don’t agree, I vote for people and then if my party get’s into government they don’t do what I want them to do!
        So frustrating!
        Democracy is defenitely overrated.
        I want a world dictatorship with me as the dictator!

  19. lark

    kathi macias may well be an excellent writer. You may want to note that her books are blurbed by the author of the ‘Left Behind’ series, a series of religious novels for fundamentalist Christians. There is section of the American publishing industry that serves this community and her work is part of that. Generally this literature is intended to explicitly serve the Christian religion (of a fundamentalist stripe).

  20. Ali

    It’s amazing that a post titled “Gender Apartheid”
    so many Americans suddenly show up ready to ‘help’, I wonder if these same people would show up if you wrote something positive about your country

    • Usman

      In the 1980s, both the Reagan and Thatcher followed a ‘constructive engagement’ policy with the apartheid government, vetoing the imposition of UN economic sanctions on South Africa, justified by a belief in free trade and a vision of South Africa as a bastion against Marxist forces in Southern Africa. Thatcher even declared the ANC a terrorist organization.
      Their descendants now declare Hamas and Hezbollah terrorist organization, support Israeli Apartheid but cry out loud for Human rights in Iran and KSA.

      Pathetic!, isn’t it?

    • Ali
      Americans have been commenting more lately because I was featured in an American news website. If you go back a couple of weeks, you’ll find a lot of Italians commenting because this blog was featured on an Italian news website. So it’s not really the topic, just the timing.

  21. Jackie

    Oh yes…we Americans are here to help! Let us come here everyday to read the blog and post our comments just we you can take your anger out on us. Look how much we helped already! You must be feeling so much better by now.

  22. prowlerzee

    Are you a MAN commenting on gender apartheid and think another woman’s concern is ironic? What are YOU doing to help?

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  26. Free mixing is haram:

    Whether you like it or not. We should follow the Prophet (sallallahu alaihi wasallam) not our personal whims.

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