Can All-Women Cities Solve Saudi Arabia's Productivity Problem?
What would a city made up of only women be like? It’s a question that people have pondered throughout history -- sometimes with high-minded intent, sometimes for cheap thrills. Herodotus wrote of the Amazons, female warriors who were said to enslave men to reproduce; Hollywood gave us the sublimely terrible 1958 science fiction movie Queen of Outer Space, in which Zsa Zsa Gabor plays a Venusian scientist on an all-female planet where some American male astronauts have been forced to crash-land. (The men struggle against their mini-skirted oppressors, prevail, and presumably get lucky.)
Leaving aside religious and educational institutions and less formal back-to-the-land “intentional communities” founded by women for women, all-female communities on a large scale have been the stuff of legend. But now, Saudi Arabia is going to take women-only cities out of the realm of myth and make them a reality. The vision is for several such cities to be built over time, starting with an industrial development of 5,000 in the province of Hofuf, a project advanced by a group of Saudi businesswomen, according to The Guardian:
The Saudi Industrial Property Authority (Modon), which is developing the women-only industrial city at Hofuf, said it hoped the city would open next year. Prince Mansour bin Miteb bin Abdulaziz, minister of municipal and rural affairs, had approved the plan, a spokesperson said.
"I'm sure that women can demonstrate their efficiency in many aspects and clarify the industries that best suit their interests, nature and ability," said Modon's deputy director general, Saleh al-Rasheed.
The Hofuf development is expected to create about 5,000 jobs in textiles, pharmaceuticals and food-processing industries, with women-run firms and production lines. Modon said the Hofuf industrial site was a suitable location given its "proximity to residential neighbourhoods to facilitate the movement of women to and from the workplace".
In a statement it added that the site was equipped "for women workers in environment and working conditions consistent with the privacy of women according to Islamic guidelines and regulations".
Why does Saudi Arabia need to do this? Well, restrictions on women's lives and productivity there are so extreme – Saudi women need a male guardian’s permission to travel, seek employment, or marry – that the country is in effect letting a potentially huge sector of the productive economy sit idle. Apparently, the powers that be are starting to see this as a problem, and with good reason. As the Guardian reports, only 15 percent of the workforce in the kingdom is female, despite its status as home to the largest all-female university in the world. A recent survey suggested more than 78 percent of female college graduates in Saudi Arabia are unemployed.
And so you could argue that in a Wahhabi-sharia society, it makes a certain kind of sense to create an all-women’s city where the half of the population that has been living behind a barrier can finally buckle down and use their education and skills. In a nation where women cannot drive, still don’t have the vote, and only recently earned the right to sell lingerie and makeup to other women, this looks like progress. Being able, at last, to work in skilled jobs should be a good thing. Right?
The problem is that a segregated city will never be as productive or creative as one where the free exchange of ideas among diverse converging people is allowed. The very thing that makes cities and societies powerful will be absent.The women who get the opportunity to work in these new cities will no doubt distinguish themselves, but they will still be laboring in segregation. These separate and unequal cities will only highlight the inequity of a society that won’t allow half its population free use of the public realm.
The only upside? Once these women get a taste of what they can do when given the chance, they might get some big ideas about their place in the future of their nation. Some men might get a clue, too.
Top image: Saudi women shop at the female-only Al-Hayatt mall in Riyadh. (Fahad Shadeed/Reuters)