Saudi Segregation

I’d heard a lot about Saudi Arabia’s segregation in malls, ministries, and other public buildings, but wasn’t really sure whether to believe it or not since most of it came from Western media sources, which can be slightly biased, to put it nicely. Anyway, Madinah wasn’t bad at all. Of course I never saw women driving or working in any of the shops/restaurants, but that I had already expected. Makkah however, was another story.

I first noticed the segregation when I went to the Starbucks in our hotel complex and saw a sign saying “Singles”. I looked around the corner and saw another sign saying “Families”. I went into the singles section and ordered, and saw a partition between the 2 sections. As I walked around the mall, I noticed this was the case in every eating place: KFC for example has a line for women and a line for men. There is also a whole separate shopping mall for women.

To be honest, I don’t understand segregation. If we all act like mature adults, surely there is no need to put barriers between men and women in coffee shops. In a mosque, fine, I understand that some women feel more comfortable when men aren’t around, and after having lived in Cairo and gone through a lot of sexual harassment, it’s understandable that you wouldn’t want these men behind you while you pray. However, does every single public place need to be segregated? Is this deep mistrust of human nature healthy?

There are a lot of things about Saudi Arabian culture that bother me. The problem is that because Saudi Arabia has such a prominent place in the Islamic world, these cultural things get associated with Islam. Were mosques segregated at the time of the Prophet the way they are today? Would the Prophet not have allowed women the same access to prayer in front of the Kaabah or the to his tombstone? Would the Prophet have forced all women in Makkah and Madinah to veil (not during prayer or Umrah, but in general)?. These policies seem to go against the spirit of Islam. Are they Islamic or are they Saudi Arabian influences?

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