A City of Saudi Women: Segregation Setback or More Women in the Workplace?

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(EASTERN PROVINCE, Saudi Arabia) -- Separate has never meant equal in Saudi Arabia. Yet a new women-only development in Saudi’s Eastern Province is aimed at moving women forward, easing more women into the workplace.

The new industrial city is expected to create about 5,000 jobs in women-run factories and firms, The Guardian reported.  The developer released a statement, saying the site was equipped, "for women workers…consistent with the privacy of women according to Islamic guidelines and regulations."

Women and men are kept separate in the Saudi kingdom, where a strict interpretation of Islam dominates the public arena. That poses a specific challenge to women workers, especially at the lower end of the income scale. They often can't interview for jobs with male bosses and need special accommodations to get to work, since they can’t drive themselves or spend their wages on a driver.

That's why Samar Fatany, a Saudi radio host and one of the kingdom’s prominent women voices, said the all-female development is a good thing: It may strike us as just more segregation, but to Saudi eyes it looks like empowerment.

"Otherwise, they won’t have that kind of opportunity to work," Fatany told ABC News. "Their culture and environment won’t let them work any other way."

"It's an opportunity to have an income, be financially independent," Fatany added. "It's an economic necessity."

That point was clear on an ABC News trip to Saudi Arabia in 2010, where I visited with women at all-female factories in Riyadh. Of all the women who worked the assembly lines packing boxes and manufacturing light fixtures, most of the women were single mothers abandoned by their husbands and desperately in need of an income. A wall separated them from the male factory workers on the other side, with just a few conveyer belts snaking through to unite the production line.

Those women wanted to work in segregated quarters. With their conservative families and personal religious values, they wouldn’t have taken a job that would involve mixing with men.

The new development falls in line with a Saudi government push to put more women in the workplace, a delicate balance between a more modern Saudi Arabia and the occasional backlash from conservative clerics.

If Saudi men feel threatened by women’s empowerment, it may be because they're suddenly being outperformed in the workplace.

"To me, a Saudi woman is a better worker than the Saudi men," said Khaled Al Maeena, editor-in-chief of the Saudi Gazette. "They work hard and they try harder."

Al Maeena, who is married to Samar Fatany, said Saudi women place more value on their hard-won opportunities.

"Women are more committed, they like to work more, they don’t give excuses, disappearing as men do," he said. "It’s a state of mind."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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