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.
And this has never been tried before?
Not on this level, says The Atlantic's Goodyear. Saudi Arabia already has all-female factories and the largest women-only university in the world, but aside from "religious and educational institutions and less formal back-to-the-land 'intentional communities' founded by women for women, all-female communities on a large scale have been the stuff of legend." And people have been wondering about cities made up of only women for centuries, "sometimes with high-minded intent, sometimes for cheap thrills."
Will this city work as intended?
Some women who work in these new cities "will no doubt distinguish themselves, but they will still be laboring in segregation," says The Atlantic's Goodyear. If the goal is unleashing the female workforce, "a segregated city will never be as productive or creative as one where the free exchange of ideas among diverse converging people is allowed." Actually, I think "Hofuf will be exceedingly productive," says Zoe Williams at Britain's The Guardian. For one thing, "as an industrial town with no men in it, it will presumably contain none of those mini-impediments to productivity known as 'children.'" In a few years, these Saudi women will be South Korea to their male counterparts' North. These cities will either fail or they'll succeed in further segregating women from the public sphere, says Homa Khaleeli at The Guardian. Maybe women should "flock to them, close the doors, and refuse to leave until the kingdom's rulers understand just what it is like to live without women."
Is this a step forward for women?
That's a tough question, says The Guardian's Williams. It's not really "a move forward in women's liberation, not unless you think apartheid was a good system for black people because they got their own swimming pools," but at the same time, we can't know yet that "Ladytown won't boost women in unintended ways." As I suspect the Saudis will soon learn, "when you educate people, refuse to let them work, and then suddenly unleash them, en masse, into economic productivity," that's a recipe for change. Look, in this kingdom, this is the only opportunity for women "to have an income, be financially independent," at least for now, Saudi radio host Samar Fatany tells ABC News. Putting women to work feels inevitable, even in Saudi Arabia, says Doug Barry at Jezebel. And "everyone should have the right to fall into the daily grind, because only then can all people truly appreciate how awesome it will be when robots do all our work for us."
Editor's note: After this story was published, a report from Al Arabiya English said the new municipality will be open to both men and women. Other sources have yet to confirm this report.