The super-patriarchal Gulf kingdom is creating a female-only city to finally allow a huge percentage of its educated population to work freely
Women wearing abayas in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: The Persian capital may soon be home to female-only zones that will allow women to work within Islamic guidelines. Photo: Michael Kappeler/dpa/Corbis
Saudi Arabia has a problem: The Persian Gulf kingdom has an increasingly educated, increasingly unemployed female population and ultraconservative laws and customs that forbid women from mingling, much less working, with men. The Saudis are fashioning an unusual solution, building an industrial city that will allow only women. The female-only zone is scheduled to open in the Eastern Province city of Hofuf next year, with more ladies-only areas to come in Riyadh, the capital. How do these cities-inside-a-city work, and are they good for women? Here’s a guide to the first-ever city of women:
How will this all-female city work?
The inaugural one in Hofuf is essentially a female-only industrial zone that’s expected to employ about 5,000 Saudi women in the textile, pharmaceutical, and food-processing industries. Women will run the companies and factories. “I’m sure that women can demonstrate their efficiency in many aspects and clarify the industries that best suit their interests, nature, and ability,” says Saleh al-Rasheed, deputy director general of the Saudi Industrial Property Authority (Modon), which is in charge of the project. The women will live in adjacent neighborhoods.
Who came up with the idea?
A group of Saudi businesswomen, according to the business newspaper Al Eqtisadiah. But Saudi Arabia’s ruling monarchy embraced the concept as a way to lower female unemployment while staying “consistent with the privacy of women according to Islamic guidelines and regulations,” Modon said in a statement. The government had little choice, says Sarah Goodyear at The Atlantic. “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.” About 60 percent of college graduates in the country are women, and 78 percent of them are unemployed, according to recent surveys; only 15 percent of the Saudi workforce is female.