Sanity Injection

Injecting a dose of sanity into your day’s news and current events.

Saudi Arabia: Not even the pretense of “separate but equal”

Posted by sanityinjection on January 20, 2010

OK, get ready, because this is going to be the most feminist column I have ever, or probably will ever write 🙂

The catalyst is the recent decision of Saudi authorities to shut down a fitness center for women in the city of Jeddah. Readers will recall that in the extremely conservative Saudi society, strict segregation of the genders (except for family members) is seriously enforced. However, that alone is not even the problem. Most Saudi women would be happy with “separate but equal” accommodations, as both men and women believe this to be part of their Muslim faith (though millions of Muslims worldwide would disagree.)

In fact, however, segregation is used as an excuse to severely circumscribe women’s lives to an extent far beyond what blacks in America’s Jim Crow South ever experienced. Women are legally forbidden from driving, for example, because doing so would inevitably cause them to have to interact with men (at gas stations, for example.) Now the closure of the Jeddah fitness center and others in the conservative kingdom – despite warnings from health officials about the level of fitness among Saudi women – proves that the discrimination against women goes far beyond the desire for Islamic segregation. Since the gym in question was for women only, with no co-ed facilities, what could have motivated its closing?

The answer is simple: The gym would have been a place where Saudi women from different families could meet and talk with one another outside of male supervision. This is a frightening prospect to the Saudi patriarchy, which believes that every aspect of women’s lives needs to be controlled by men. The Saudi men – encouraged by their male imams – believe that their women are fundamentally immoral and will descend rapidly into sin if not kept in check by men. This idea is rooted not so much in Islam but in a much older tribal culture. As such, it is indefensible in the 21st century.

There is little that we in the West can do other than to speak up and consistently promote the idea of women as full citizens with equal rights in every area. And not to tolerate any suggestion of “different cultural standards” as an excuse for the Saudi brand of discrimination. Cultural values should be respected in matters such as standards of dress and public behavior, but not where the fundamental rights of speech, faith, and assembly are concerned.


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