“Kingdom of Saudi men.” That’s how Manal al-Sharif—an activist who was arrested in 2011 for calling on women to get behind the wheel in defiance of Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving—frequently refers to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Within her play on words, there is an immense amount of exhausting truth. Men control - either directly or indirectly - literally every aspect of Saudi public life.
A Human Rights Watch report entitled “Perpetual Minors” illustrates the human rights violations that occur within Saudi Arabia due to the system of guardianship and gender segregation within the nation. The report explains that because of sex segregation, Saudi women’s right to education, health, equality before the law, freedom of movement and equality in marriage are in a dire state.
Education remains segregated by gender, and despite the male and female campuses being part of the same University, policy and regulations in regards to the male and female campuses differ greatly. Take the private Prince Mohammed Bin Fahd University (PMU) as an example; while the required overall grade to pass a course is 70% for females, males are permitted to pass with just a 60% average. Smoking is permitted on the male’s campus, while female students who smoke on campus are written up and punished. Furthermore, administrative segregation also negatively impacts female instructors and staff at Universities.
At PMU, all administrative decisions must be approved by the men who run the University. Their building is positioned deep within the male campus, and female employees do not have access to this building except in the rare case where they are summoned over. In contrast, the males can come onto the female side when a meeting has been requested by a female employee, though they usually decline and deal with female employees through email, phone or messenger. One of the main problems with this arrangement is that while the male employees have direct access to the decision makers and are able to walk into their offices and plead their cases in person, women are greatly disconnected from the decision-makers. Female employees are often dealt with as numbers rather than people.
The consequences of gender segregation in Saudi are no different from those of racial segregation in the 1950s’ United States. In the landmark case Brown vs. The Board of Education, which marked a historical milestone for the civil rights movement, the US Supreme Court ruled: “Segregation has a tendency to retard the educational and mental development of black children, (…) deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racially integrated school system. (… and generate) feelings of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to be undone.” The very same can be said of black South Africans under the Apartheid, Palestinians under Israeli occupation… and females in Saudi Arabia.
I often find myself uncomfortable in my own skin, battling a feeling of inferiority within my own community. It literally feels as though men have “marked their territory” in public spaces, and that I simply do not belong.
I find myself battling the same feelings of inferiority within my community as a female in a gender-segregated kingdom. And I’m not just talking about my professional environment, academia. Similar segregation exists in cafes and restaurants. Most are divided into the “single section” which is for males only, and the “family section” which is for women and their male relatives. There is generally is no “female” only area, as men are either present as workers or as members of the family. While it is common to find males in these areas deemed appropriate for females in public, rare is the case when a woman can go into a male area.
This leads to a number of psychological issues. First and foremost, men are used to controlling their own space in public and not as accustom to seeing women in spaces designated for them. Women are generally more accustom to the presence of men in public spaces designated for them. As a female, this can lead to the constant feeling of being out of place whenever she is taken out of the “family section” environment in public. In the case where a woman must go into an area where the majority are males, she is seen as not belonging in the “male space”. This often leaves many women feeling uncomfortable or out of place in government offices, hospitals, airports and a number of other places.
This constant feeling of not belonging causes me to feel uncomfortable in my own skin, though that stress is instantly lifted the moment I step outside of Saudi borders. It literally feels as though men have “marked their territory” in every public place; and often when I find myself in public areas that naturally fall out of the “gender segregated” system; such as airports, hospitals, malls, courts or many government buildings…the majority of the men make me feel out of place. Whether it be through a cold stare, an odd look, the “tsk-tsk” of disapproval of my presence, a comment on how I’m not “properly covered”, or inquiries as to why I am trying to handle my own affairs and my guardian isn’t taking care of it for me... the clear message is that I’m not welcome in their claimed territory.
*Bayan Perazzo is a University instructor in Saudi Arabia; she specializes in MENA politics and Islamic studies. Follow her on Twitter.