Saudi Arabia: largest women-only university

A Guardian article reports the construction of a 40,000-student university for women only in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The journalist couples the news with critiques of the discriminatory effects of gender-based segregation in the country, commenting that Human Rights Watch has recently released a report describing Saudi women as “perpetual minors.” This would seem to be another one of those moments where anthropological relativism clashes with basic feminist instincts. Shouldn’t women be allowed to work and drive everywhere? Yes, one would certainly think so. But on the other hand, isn’t it ok for some cultures to assign different rights and responsibilities to different people? One would think so too, since all culture have role differentiation — a division of labor, in other words. Is it justifiable to impose Euroamerican standards of freedom and gender equality on the rest of the world? Well, it certainly smacks of ethnocentrism to do so, but there is also a place for universalist politics. What do Saudi women think about it themselves? The article doesn’t give a terribly clear view of that, mostly quoting a researcher, Farida Deif, who finds that women’s mobility in medical school dormitories was highly restricted, and that the Saudi education system perpetuates traditional gender roles.

But gender differentiation is practiced in the United States too, and sometimes there are arguments for its utility, even for its justice. For instance, I hear rumors that some degree of same-sex education is efficacious, like in math classes where girls can supposedly have different and maybe better forms of solidarity or competition without boys, and of course in phys. ed. where gender segregation seems to be legitimated by the axiom that female bodies differ physically from male bodies. (Perhaps it’s harder to legitimate gender segregation in other courses because the corresponding axiom, that male minds differ from female minds, is so much more problematic.) And there have long been arguments for women-only feminist spaces – the controversy over excluding transsexual people from the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival comes to mind.

Oddly enough, a glance at a couple of western feminist critiques of Saudi Arabia suggests that western observers are irked as much by their personal subjection to local custom as by the restrictions on local women:

“I was also as a single woman accustomed to the freedom of New York City, where I can move about unfettered by gender restrictions, even feeling safe on the city’s subway late at night. In Saudi Arabia I would lose all that and I didn’t know how my internal navigation would cope.

Taking the Jeddah airport bus from the plane to the terminal, I observed that some women did not have veils or even scarves, and I decided to remain bareheaded. By the time we reached the baggage claim area, however, my resolved faded as I could no longer see another woman without a head scarf. I reached into my bag and put mine on.” (From Women’s e-News, “Taking the gender apartheid tour in Saudi Arabia.”)

“…The women’s or families’ sections are often run-down, neglected, and, in the case of Starbucks, have no seats,” the U.S. official wrote. “Worse, these firms will bar entrance to Western women who show up without their husbands.” (Quoted in a NOW article.)

It’s odd, isn’t it, that it would be reckoned “worse” to bar Western women than to provide bad seating to Saudi local women? Of course, these critiques do go on to address the specifics of local practices, but I find it disconcerting to see how universalist critiques of foreign gender relations are so closely linked with a personal desire not to be upset or disadvantaged by strange, seemingly backward foreign customs. (NOW compares it to slavery.)

That said, a quick look at the Human Rights Watch report suggests that many Saudi women are in fact radically against the current system. “You’re faced with being humiliated daily. We really do not have an identity,” a female Saudi professor said. So then it becomes a question not only of how to relate politically and anthropologically to a foreign culture, but of which group in that culture one wishes to side with.