Tuesday, May 13, 2008

How Healthy Is The Extreme Gender-Based Segregation In Saudi Arabia?

I came across this article in the NYT and immediately thought: this can't be healthy.

Now before I get my head ripped off by those who take me/us as attention-seeking, faux non-conformist, Western-pleasing Uncle Toms, let me state at the outset what I am not arguing:

1. That any nation adopt or import cultural practices and discourse that are alien to it.
2. That hegemonic Western notions of superiority vis-a-vis gender relations be given credence beyond certain circumscribed empirical universes.
3. That there inheres in gender-based segregation significant normative content. Put another way, that segregation is "good" or "bad".

No, I'm simply asking: is this healthy? I mean, just read some of these passages:
The separation between the sexes in Saudi Arabia is so extreme that it is difficult to overstate. Saudi women may not drive, and they must wear black abayas and head coverings in public at all times. They are spirited around the city in cars with tinted windows, attend girls-only schools and university departments, and eat in special “family” sections of cafes and restaurants, which are carefully partitioned from the sections used by single male diners.

Special women-only gyms, women-only boutiques and travel agencies, even a women-only shopping mall, have been established in Riyadh in recent years to serve women who did not previously have access to such places unless they were chaperoned by a male relative.


According to about 30 Saudi girls and women between ages 15 and 25, all interviewed during December, January and February, it is becoming more and more socially acceptable for young engaged women to speak to their fianc├ęs on the phone, though more conservative families still forbid all contact between engaged couples.

“If your family found out you were talking to a man online, that’s not quite as bad as talking to him on the phone,” Ms. Tukhaifi explained. “With the phone, everyone can agree that is forbidden, because Islam forbids a stranger to hear your voice. Online he only sees your writing, so that’s slightly more open to interpretation.

“One test is that if you’re ashamed to tell your family something, then you know for sure it’s wrong,” Ms. Tukhaifi continued. “For a while I had Facebook friends who were boys — I didn’t e-mail with them or anything, but they asked me to “friend” them and so I did. But then I thought about my family and I took them off the list.”


“I always go to him [her brother] when I have problems,” said Shaden who, like many of the young Saudi women interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition that her last name be omitted. “And he’s not too strict — he still listens to music sometimes. I asked him once, ‘You do everything right and yet you’re listening to music?’ He said, ‘I know music is haram, and inshallah, with time I will be able to stop listening to music too.’ ” Haram means forbidden, and inshallah means “God willing.”

She added, “I told him, ‘I want a husband like you.’ ”

Does walling one entire set of people from another entire set of people ever produce good outcomes? Just to reiterate the point - they're simply not allowed in each other's company. In many ways, this segregation is more extreme than Apartheid South Africa, where at least black and white people would see each other.

Anyway, reading all this just reminded me of this story, back from a few years ago, when the Religious Police didn't let girls escape from a burning building because they weren't dressed according to "Islamic principles".

The point I'm trying to raise is that irrespective of whatever cultural path dependence creates and reinforces these norms, it can't be healthy for men and women to be so completely cut off from each other. I'm not talking about changing these norms per se - indeed, it's quite striking how little we hear about dissatisfaction with these norms - but am merely highlighting their practical effects.


Asfandyar said...

Islam doesn't allow you to hear a stranger's voice?


Shit i'm going to hell :(

Anonymous said...

"That hegemonic Western notions of superiority vis-a-vis gender relations be given credence beyond certain circumscribed empirical universes."

What a sentence!

I can't decide if it makes me want to pat you on the back or punch you in the face.

Ahsan said...

Hahahaha. Well, you DO have two hands, don't you?

Oh snap! said...

One of those hands is always busy.

adeel said...

Interestingly the medical sector is exempt...http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/nesrine_malik/2008/05/sex_and_the_city_of_riyadh.html this Guardian CiF article has some more insight.

I remember our boys vball team putting on abaya's and getting into the female section of Fuddruckers in Jeddah to have a meal with the girls team, hormones really were a liability back then.

Laila said...

This article is basing all of this on 30 people? That's pretty dodgy social science. And as far as dissatisfaction with Saudi norms are concerned, a lot of anthropological research has been carried out on how Saudis try to resist the social and religious restrictions that are enforced on them. Obviously they aren't going to protest publicly because they'll probably end up in prison.

Ahsan said...


A couple of points. First, you're right about it being a small sample size. However, I don't think you need to interview masses of people for a journalistic piece. I don't think the writer is even *attempting* social science here.

Second, I don't think the threat of prison would keep people from protesting, at least to a NYT reporter. After all, they're being granted anonymity, so what's the problem? How will they get in trouble? In any event, I'd love for you to email or post here link(s) to some of that anthro stuff that you're referring to.

Sahar said...

It is absolutely unhealthy. It's acceptable to cross dress but not talk to a guy?! come on!

Such strict segregation is NOT Islamic. In fact, the hands and face serve as the main form of identification and should be left uncovered. The segregation in Saudi is a NOT Islamic-it's a result of male chauvinistic pigs.

ali said...

@ adeel:
there's a fuddruckers in jeddah???? oh my lord........

@ whoever else:
fucked up norms - yes. but i have known many saudis who talk about how everything and anything happens "behind closed doors". (i also used to live there for the first 6 years of my life but i hardly remember jack). that's what society becomes - closed. just look at quetta and peshawar's elite.
as for law enforcement, more than half of saudi's elite is "royalty". you're either a grandson/granddaughter or niece/nephew or son/daughter-in-law of a prince.

now, connected to that royalty issue - who the fuck created saudi arabia? who helped the house of saud usurp power in that region and take over the king of hejaz, encompassing his large province (betraying their promise to him)? yes, obviously the british in the context of decolonisation around the world.
now i am not scapegoating the british just because it'd be an easy target to blame them and deny responsibility - wait for the icing on the cake. but who the fuck helped create and maintain the power of the saudi royalty, with their mind-boggling paradoxical society of wendy's/pizza hut/& apparently fuddruckers while heavily relying on wahhabi groups to help 'legitimise' their power and perpetual rule, that ends up creating 'religious police' out of fear of 'western liberal' norms infiltrating society?

...and the cherry on top of that baskin & robbins ice cream or the sprinkles on that dunkin donuts available in probably every street corner of a saudi city is this new york times article that reports on this weird social phenomenon.

yeah i'm fuckin pissed.

Laila said...

There's this book called Contesting the Saudi State by this author Madawi Al-Rasheed. She's basically in exile in London and she wrote this book based on several phone interviews with Saudis and researching all the debates that are carried out on internet forums. It's pretty interesting, and a lot of it gets at stuff that Ali refers to in his comments. On another note there's this other book called Warring Souls and it kind of explores the same type of stuff except in Iran. The author's name is Roxanne Varzi.
I know that the NYT is not carrying out a social survey or anything, but imagine if they interviewed 30 people living in Nazimabad or 30 people living in Defence, and then projected that all of Pakistani society was like that. It's like the NYT had a point to prove and published the stupidest opinions out of the lot to prove it. I hate how American media tries to homogenize other societies, which is what I think this article tries to do, and that's why it's pissing off.

Laila said...

Oh I forgot there's this other great book called America's Kingdom by Robert Vitalis. He was actually my professor for this class I took, and the book is great. Really, really eye opening. I think after reading it you'll kind of see why protesting is so hard in Saudi society.

Ahsan said...


Thanks for those references. I agree with you 100% on the agenda of newspapers and the media, even if it's an unconscious agenda.

Saudi ibn Abdullah ibn Saud ibn Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab ibn Said ibn Joe Lieberman said...

Laila, I agree that many Saudis contest the socio-legal constraints put upon them. But who are the 'enforcers'? The Saudis are both the rebels and the enforcers of these norms and laws. It's far too complex to divide people at a binary level. I think the article aptly displays this, however anecdotal its value might be. One of the individuals profiled in the article on the boys rebels to an extent, but then polices his peers when they near or pass a boundary he's defined. And these norms/laws aren't simply imposed on the society from a hegemonical force. There is some consent and endorsement involved. Additionally, the norms/laws aren't alien to the land. They're completely indigenous to the Najd region. They are somewhat alien outside of that region, e.g. the Hijaz.

ali said...


thanks for the 'support' to my comments - i was slightly fearful that my comments would be harshly criticised and dismissed. i should also check out those books, i didn't have any concrete evidence backing my argument.

additionally, i think the saudi state and saudis (generally) - and dubai to some significant extent - represent everything wrong with the middle east today and the question of arab unity. i'm a wishful pan-arabist.

Laila said...

okay so there's no point commenting so late considering no one's going to read them now, but I just wanted to answer the above comments.

@saudi ibn...
I agree that Saudis play an active part in enforcing these rules, but imagine if rebelling against them got you caught by the religious police and you got hauled off to some miserable prison? That kind of threat would probably make it really difficult for people to outright rebel. Not that I'm saying that there's no element of hypocrisy here...but you can't outright blame the Saudis 100% without making an effort to understand where they come from and what they have to deal with. It's not that Saudis have never rebelled against the government. When ARAMCO was based in Saudi Arabia and was run by the Americans who treated the Saudi labourers like shit, there were plenty of strikes by the Saudi workers. Unfortunately though they were hauled off and put in jail. Obviously this has nothing to do with gender segregation but what I'm just trying to say is that when its hard to resist authority, people eventually give up. Additionally these norms are indigenous of the Najd area because that's where Wahabism originated, which is the official branch of Islam followed by the Saudis. Obviously if the Al-Saud had not taken over (they have a history of collaborating with Abdul Wahab in order to expand their reign), then maybe society might have been different.

the books are great and you should definitely check them out! (especially America's Kingdom) You see the middle east in a totally different light. I read most of them because I thought it was about time I informed myself about the area considering the current political climate. I think besides Saudi Arabia and Dubai, Iran is another country that represents all the terrible things about the middle east.

Ali said...

@ laila:

i don't think iran represents all the terrible things about the middle east itself. I think if you study iranian history pre-revolution, the revolution, and then post 1970's, it represents how western intervention fucks up a region then villifies it for getting out of its grip.

Laila said...

Well I'm not talking about it from the perspective of the West, which obviously messed things up by thinking so short term during the 1950's. I was referring to the way Khomeini took advantage of the Iraq war to send off thousands of untrained young boys to die in the name of the country and Islam. I'm just not a fan of the extreme directions the country has moved into, just to prove a point not only to others but to themselves. It's obvious that the government agenda to Islamicize its public isn't working due to the high rates of suicide, drug abuse and extra-marital sex amongst the youth. I'm pretty sure you can't blame the West for that.

ps - how did we move so off topic from Ahsan's original question? Also are you from the middle east because if you are then I don't mean to offend you by criticizing so many aspects of the region.

Ali said...


what khomeini did by sending off young men to die for the sake of the 'islamic republic' is pure politics. who doesn't do that? from taliban to US military, you recruit young men who have relatively little aspirations in their society, indoctrinate them with some patriotic/nationalist/racist notions of defending yourselves and crushing the 'enemy'. standard commonplace stuff.

the reason why iranians are dissatisfied and 'revolting' against khomeini et al is because - putting it in oversimplified terms - their side didn't win. the islamic party won. everyone was just against the shah - common enemy, united the islamic groups and the socialists. khomeini exploited this while in france getting some operation or something, came back as a 'hero' (ahem nawaz bhutto ahem), and then wait a minute, we just wanted to get rid of the shah, we didn't want an 'islamic' regime per se. you end up with a bunch of disgruntled socialists, and a plethora of minority communities forced to flee or face persecution (communists, jews, christians, baha'is) and society at large goes underground.

Why did khomeini send his kids to iraq? in the cold war context, iran post-revolution got lost to the 'other side'. let's pump iraq with weapons to try to f*** up iran. actually i came across something that iran and iraq were both being supplied by the same people. i think that was in the movie 'persepolis' (haven't read the book yet).

to cut the long story short - i am not "from" the middle east, and i am not at all offended - i don't think any right-minded middle eastern person would be offended either. i did however grow up in saudi arabia for the first 6 yrs of my life - don't remeber much of it - then moved to nigeria. but i studied politics for my undergrad, and did a couple regional focuses: the middle east and south asia. :)

Laila said...


Well I do agree with you that that's standard politics but it doesn't make it right by any standard. Atleast the taliban and the US make an effort to train the people they are sending into war, unlike Khomeini who sent in a bunch of 14-17 year olds with absolutely no preparation except some screwed up notion of Islam and patriotism. I know there are usually no morals involved in politics but I draw the line there.

The Iranians can't be that dissatisfied considering they elected Ahmedinijad into power themselves, but of course that might have to do with the fact that when the religious left were in power they didn't really make the effort to enact any changes, so I guess when people are unhappy they turn to something completely different (sort of what happened in Germany before world war two).

Politics huh? No wonder you knew so much history about the place :) I would probably have studied political science if I hadn't cowed under parental pressure and majored in Biology instead.

Ahsan said...


What subfield of Poli Sci are you interested in most?

Ali said...


ahmedinejad was popularly voted in because he was a middle class boy, seen as a hope for the working and lower-middle classes. by virtue of that, he got the lefties' votes to. but the way iranian politics works at present is that the islamic authorities (ayatollah et al) are comfortable in their authoritative roles at the background, and the elected government has to strike a balance by pleasing society but also the clerics. this brings us back to square one of this blog discussion: saudi arabia's ruling royals function somewhat similarly - relying on the wahhabi families/scholars for legitimacy and political support, but, minus the democratic 'obligation' iran seems to have.

biology eh, maybe you can be a surgeon in iran! plastic surgery is a very lucrative business there, it's ridiculous the amount of middle-aged and older women getting noses and lips done.

Laila said...


Well I'm interested in a bunch of random stuff, since I wasn't able to take as many poli sci classes as I would have liked so a particular concentration doesn't come to mind but of the top of my head - middle east relations, Israeli-Palestine conflict, World war 1 and 2 European relations. Also some feminist political issues like abortion.

Yeah it looks like the Saudi system is the reverse of the Iranian, with a relatively secular government but a more ritualized religious public sector. Which kind of sucks for the Saudis have to deal with that kind of hypocrisy all the time.
haha plastic surgery in Iran! Thanks for the career advice but thank god I already have a pretty good job (a miracle considering the present nature of the US economy)

Ahsan said...

One of the best books (on any subject) I've ever read is Richard Overy's "Russia's War" on the war on the eastern front in WWII. You should definitely read it if you haven't already. Another fun book is a swift tour of war-fighting and how it changed through the ages in Europe. It's by Michael Howard and it's called "War in European History".

Laila said...

thanks for the info. I actually haven't read either of these books, but shall look them up on amazon

aunty said...

hmmmm....do i detect a hint of online intellectual flirtation going on? well done fiverupees, for spreading information AND love.

Laila said...

naqiya if this is you posing as this so called aunty, then so not cool. I'm hoping my flirtation tactics are not so rusty, that I have to resort to using Saudi Arabia as an excuse of all places. But then again you do know all about online flirtations :P

aunty said...

i'll never tell

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