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No man’s land: Women-only city planned for Saudi Arabia

Published time: August 10, 2012 14:09
Edited time: August 10, 2012 18:09
AFP Photo / Fayez Nureldine

AFP Photo / Fayez Nureldine

Saudi Arabia is to build a new city exclusively for women. The Gulf kingdom is working on the narrow junction between strict Sharia law and the aspirations of active females who wish to pursue their own careers.

­The new plan is to combine women’s desire to work in the modern age and provide a job environment that would go hand-in-hand with the country’s Sharia law. The Saudi Industrial Property Authority (Modon) has been charged to lead the country into a new era.

The ambitious mono-city is now being designed with construction to begin next year. The municipality in the Eastern city of Hafuf is expected to attract 500 million riyals (US$133 million) in investments and it will create around 5,000 jobs in the textiles, pharmaceuticals and food processing industries. There will be women-run firms and production lines for women.

Saudi Sharia law does allow women to work, given that her essential duties of homemaking should not be neglected. But in reality around 15 per cent of women are represented in the workforce, according to some estimates.

The Modon plan shadows the government’s desire for women to play a more important role in the development of the country. Among the stated objectives are to create job spots for young people.

"I'm sure that women can demonstrate their efficiency in many aspects and clarify the industries that best suit their interests, their nature and their ability," Modon’s deputy director-general, Saleh Al-Rasheed, told Saudi daily al-Eqtisadiah.

Saudi’s existing industrial cities already have factories owned by women, as well as companies that employ a small portion of the female population.

Apart from Hafuf, the Saudis are developing more women-only polis projects.  

We are now working on a second industrial city for women,” said Saleh Al Rasheed. “We have plans to establish a number of women-only industries in various parts of the kingdom.

The kingdom’s rampant desire to boost its citizen workforce participation and change the women’s unemployment rate is also changing the retail landscape. The state is attempting to replace foreign salespeople with Saudi women in its female apparel shops, according to a research carried out by Booz and Co.

This summer, women started replacing sales staff in cosmetics and perfume shops, only half a year after they replaced male sales staff in lingerie stores. By the end of the year, women plan to replace their gender counterparts in stores selling abayas, the traditional black cloak worn by women.

But despite the degree of emancipation, women's rights in Saudi Arabia are still defined by Islam and lack basic freedoms found in many Western cultures. For instance, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving.

Yet recently efforts have been made to change the societal structure in the kingdom.

Last September, King Abdullah announced that women will be able to vote and run in the 2015 local elections, and be appointed to the Consultative Assembly.

This July, women also obtained the right to represent their country at the London Olympic Games.