Hopes For Progression Destroyed as Saudi Women Continue to be Excluded

Just as Sarah Attar and Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, the first Saudi Arabian sportswomen to take part in Olympic Games, made the round trip home after an eventful stay in London, plans for a women-only industrial city in their home town surfaced.

The women made history after becoming the first women to compete in the games for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This was met with complete adoration from most of the world, particularly in the host city which provided standing ovations to both women as they entered into their sporting arenas. However, their participation was hailed an atrocity by the ultra-conservative nation with several media outlets either completely ignoring their participation in the games or providing eloquently put epithets such as “The prostitutes of the Olympics”.

In fact the Saudi Olympic Committee had itself reluctantly overturned a ban on women athletes in June after months of pressure from the International Olympic Committee. Interestingly enough the IOC had rather heroically threatened the Saudi authorities with a ban on any future participation in the games- male or female unless they sent some women to London 2012.

To some it would appear a happy ending, the women got to compete and returned home happy, however any chance at female empowerment was eradicated as news emerged of an industrial city- primarily for women- being built in the Eastern Province city of Hofuf.

This industrial hub will be home to an all female population of women workers who currently constitute 15% of the Saudi Arabian task force and will host 5,000 jobs in textiles, pharmaceuticals and food-processing industries, with women-run firms and production lines.

Currently the Kingdom implements strict bans on mixed schools, universities, offices and even restaurants. Free mixing of genders is disapproved of in line with rigid Wahabbi culture. It would not be implausible to make parallels with the Jim Crow Laws of the 1960’s that stain the pages of African American history to this day. Certainly, treating citizens as lepers in their own country is deplorable behaviour, it is a message that such individuals are unfit to mix and too unequal to expect anything better.

In statistical terms, arabianbusiness.com reports that a gap of 23% renders Saudi Arabia the world’s worst place for gender equality. The nation currently possesses the largest disparities between male and female employment. Women are excluded from all aspects of social life, unable to drive and deprived of their right to vote. As if this was not bad enough, they are now being thrown into a city of their own.

King Abdullah may have announced a decision to reserve female disfranchisement in the 2015 local elections and eradicated a law prohibiting women from being employed from cosmetic and lingerie stores, but this simply is not enough.

In a global society where every day signals an achievement for the women’s movement, with Angela Merkel heading the euro-zone crisis in Germany and leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi inspiring a generation, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is taking steps backward and resembling a antiquated autocratic regime ready to collapse in on itself. The King must make tangible steps toward gender equality and subsequently allow the nation align itself with a fast-pace modern world that makes no concessions for the outdated.


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