Saudi women-only city? Look again

A misreported story sparks debate over employing the Kingdom's women.

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  1. It started when the Saudi Industrial Property Authority published the following press release on August 6, under a somewhat ambiguous headline:
  2. The area, called Al-Ahsa 2nd Industrial City, is designed to provide hundreds of work opportunities for women, something not readily accepted in many Saudi businesses and communities. But it appears that news editors - many from highly-regarded organisations - didn't quite read past the headline. 
    The Guardian was among the first to report the story, which was later cited by other news sites:
  3. A women-only industrial city dedicated to female workers is to be constructed in Saudi Arabia to provide a working environment that is in line with the kingdom's strict customs. The city, to be built in the Eastern Province city of Hofuf, is set to be the first of several planned for the Gulf kingdom.
  4. However, here's the subhead from the press release:
  5. And then later, in the second paragraph:
  6. Special sections and production halls will be reserved for women within the factory, i. e, the city is not closed or not intended for women only.
  7. Yet The Guardian reported that the women-only city was approved by the Minister of Municipal and Rural Affairs, and confirmed by a spokesperson:
  8. The Saudi Industrial Property Authority (Modon), which is developing the women-only industrial city at Hofuf, said it hoped the city would open next year. Prince Mansour bin Miteb bin Abdulaziz, minister of municipal and rural affairs, had approved the plan, a spokesperson said.
  9. Two days later, The Atlantic Cities - an offshoot of The Atlantic - reported on the women-only city, conjuring up images from Hollywood fantasies:
  10. What would a city made up of only women be like? It’s a question that people have pondered throughout history -- sometimes with high-minded intent, sometimes for cheap thrills. Herodotus wrote of the Amazons, female warriors who were said to enslave men to reproduce; Hollywood gave us the sublimely terrible 1958 science fiction movie Queen of Outer Space, in which Zsa Zsa Gabor plays a Venusian scientist on an all-female planet where some American male astronauts have been forced to crash-land. (The men struggle against their mini-skirted oppressors, prevail, and presumably get lucky.)
  11. Germany's Deutsche-Welle also examined the issue, but interviewed experts who doubted the initiative would work. The piece even quoted a former Al Jazeera journalist based in Qatar, a neighbouring Gulf country:
  12. "Women are often the ones to call for separation of the sexes," she said. "It is women who say, 'I am not comfortable with men at work; I can only think of work in a place where women are among each other'."
  13. Meanwhile, dozens of other sites posted articles, videos and opinion pieces on the story:
  14. Saudi Arabia Announces Women-Only City
  15. Bloggers questioned the idea of a women-only city, like this post from iwoke2this
  16. Um…no words. This is just - baffling. 1) If they still can’t drive, how will they manage to get to work, or will everything be within walking distance to their houses? 2) Will women run *everything* in this city? 3) Only 5,000 jobs to be created? That seems low; I thought the population was much higher. I guess it’s a good start.
  17. Saudi blogger Eman Al Nafjan said the initiative just isn't feasible:
  18. From Modon’s website and Al-Rasheed’s interview, it’s apparent that the “women” part comes from the novelty of having women allowed on a manufacturing site and not that it will be completely operated from A to Z by women. In a country where the Highest Islamic Council has on it’s website a fatwa discouraging people from allowing women to specialize in scientific fields and where the number of women who have experience in industry is somewhere around zero, it wouldn’t be business-savvy to open a whole industrial city for women. It would be basically opening a ghost town and burning millions of dollars.
  19. Netizens shared strong opinions about the alleged Saudi proposal: