Distributed March 2002
Copyright ©2002 by Eleanor Abdella Doumato

Op-Ed Editor: Mark Nickel
About 850 Words

Eleanor Abdella Doumato

Separate and unequal: Sex segregation is a Saudi national obsession

The tragic deaths of at least 14 girls in a fire in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, presents an opportunity for the royal family to chip away at the country’s obsession over sex-segregation. The girls died when the morals police prevented them from leaving the burning building because they weren’t covered in the traditional abaye and when civil defense workers were denied access to the building.

A fire at a public school for girls in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, resulted in the deaths of at least 14 students on March 11. According to Saudi press reports, witnesses at the scene said members of the morals police – the mutawwa’in – prevented some girls from leaving the burning building because the girls weren’t covered in the abaye, a black coat worn with a headscarf and a second scarf over the face. Reports from the scene also claimed that the mutawwa’in beat civil defense workers who were attempting to enter the building while students were still inside. Other witnesses said that emergency exit doors were locked.

Whatever else contributed to the death of those 14 Saudi girls, the escape routes available were certainly inadequate. In the name of protection, every public building for Saudi women is guarded by men. Protection for women often requires bars on windows or windows that are placed too high for anyone to look in or out – or eliminates windows entirely. The doors are locked, and buildings for women are often surrounded by high walls.

I recently visited the main headquarters of the General Presidency for Girls’ Education in Riyadh. That agency, controlled by ulama (religious scholars), is charged with overseeing girls’ education in the kingdom. Being a woman, I was driven past the grand, landscaped front entrance, which is reserved for men, and taken around to the back. There, the unwelcoming women’s entrance is approached through two sets of dark tinted-glass double doors. On one set of doors, the outside handles were removed and the inside handles sealed together with a chain and padlock. The remaining doors opened to a clutter of file cabinets jammed into a foyer and a warren of small offices teeming with workers. Like every public building in which women are housed, the headquarters for girls’ education is a firetrap.

Keeping women separate from men is Saudi Arabia’s national obsession. Women’s invisibility is the most visible symbol of Islamic identity, promoted to infuse a sense of loyalty to a regime that claims to rule according to Islamic law.

The chief method of promoting Islamic identity is the national educational curriculum that puts religious studies at the center of every child’s school day. There are nine hours of religious instruction per week in elementary school and four a week in high school – except for religious studies concentrators who are allowed to drop secular subjects altogether.

Among the most persistent themes in the mandatory texts for middle and high school students are sex-segregation and correct behavior between men and women. Using selective passages from the Qur’an and the Hadith (the canonized sayings of the Prophet), the lessons extrapolate advice for daily living according to the principle, “Whatever leads to forbidden things must be forbidden.”

For example, students learn that the Prophet said, “A man must not be alone with a woman unless he is her mahram (male guardian).” The text explains that being alone with a man will cause a woman to fall into prostitution. Therefore, a woman must not ride in a car alone with a hired driver, and a female servant should not stay in the house alone if men are present. Schoolboys are taught that just seeing an unrelated woman opens the door to Satan, so they must not look at photographs or watch films with women in them. Ninth-graders learn that every part of a woman’s body is private and that girls should wear fabrics that are opaque and wide enough to hide the shape of their bodies. Boys should never shake the hand of a woman, unless she is elderly.

The ulama in the General Presidency who write these texts use scriptural authority to reinforce their own parochial sex-segregation customs – customs that are being increasingly challenged by forces of modernity. The presence of state-funded mutawwa’in at the girls’ schools is a reflection of society’s urge to dam the floodgates.

I doubt the mutawwa’in assigned to the girls’ school in Mecca consciously chose the modesty of those children over their safety. I think instead that sex-segregation is so much a part of who Saudis are that obstructing the escape of young girls trying to run outside without their abayas was a knee-jerk response – as thoughtless and self-righteous as removing the handles and locking the doors to the women’s section of the General Presidency.

The outpouring of public anger directed against the religious establishment over these tragic deaths presents an extraordinary opportunity to chip away at the legal and physical edifice of sex-segregation. The ruling family could begin by immediately enforcing fire-codes and forbidding any locking or blocking of exit doors and by announcing publicly that they intend to insure that Saudi girls receive the same public safety considerations as boys. High-profile prosecution of any mutawwa’ found complicit in preventing the girls’ escape would go a long way toward starting a public discussion about the pernicious side of sex-segregation. Once this taboo is broken, the Saudis might consider the mismatch between their religious studies curricula and the preparation required for success in the globalized world their children – boys and girls – will inhabit.

Eleanor Abdella Doumato is a visiting scholar at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies. She has lived and worked for many years in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Lebanon, and she specializes in gender and history in the Gulf region. She is currently engaged in a study of education and the religion curriculum in Saudi schools.

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