In 2002, a fire broke out at an all-girls school in Mecca. As the girls tried to escape the burning building, members of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), commonly referred to as the religious police, prevented and interfered with rescue efforts. This was because the students were not wearing the ‘appropriate’ dress of a abaya (Human Rights Watch, 2002). Women can choose to not wear this item of clothing when in private or not in the presence of men, something that is exercised frequently in this setting. The CPVPC shut gates to the escaping girls and obstructed fire fighters attempting to aid the rescue. In all 15 students died in the fire, with 50 others injured. This shockingly tragic example illustrates the priorities and views of some Saudi Arabian authorities of women and girls when in the public sphere, as well as the hierarchy of gender in the most profoundly gender segregated country in the world (Gorney, 2020).

The Religious Police on patrol in Riyadh (Sismografo, 2019)

Public space is a masculine domain in Saudi Arabia (Valentine, 2001), due to the gender hierarchy that exists leading to unequal access and experience of public spaces, based on gender (Le Renard, 2014). This along with the discriminatory state policies has led to a growth of women’s only public spaces in Saudi Arabia, as well as walls, separate entrances, parallel facilities for men and women (ibid). The capital, Riyadh, is the most conservative of Saudi Arabia’s cities (Gorney, 2020).  As Jacobs (1961) says that good public space should be inclusive and open to all, what does ‘public’ space mean in the context of the gender segregation occurring in Riyadh?

Until 2015 women; were not allowed to vote in Saudi Arabia (Gorney, 2020), were not allowed to drive until 2017 (Lim, 2018) and are still legally classed as minors all their lives, meaning that they must seek permission from a male guardian for decisions in their lives such as applying for a job or going abroad (Michaelson, 2020). Some have called the situation in Saudi Arabia ‘gender apartheid’ (Saunders in Shannon, 2014). Gender segregation in the public domain has become the cornerstone of the Saudi Arabian interpretation of Islam (Geel, 2016) and is so engrained that in Saudi Arabic there is no word for ‘gender segregation’ (Geel, 2016).

Mohammed bin Salman became crown prince 2017, acting as de-facto ruler of the Kingdom and brought an end to the ban of women driving (Lim, 2018). The crown prince has been seen to be modernising the Kingdom’s laws since his ascension (Sly, 2020) however it is often cultural norms that have led to the marginalisation and oppression to women in Saudi Arabia rather than the laws themselves (Gorney, 2020).

The new Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman

Saudi Scholars (Gause 2010) and the director of the religious police in Mecca Ahmad bin Qasim al-Ghamdi have said that  Islam doesn’t prevent the mixing of men and women in public spaces (Meijer, 2016). In the Qur’an, 9:71 there is a verse that translates as “he believers, men and women, are allies (awliya) of one another. They enjoin the ‘common good’ (al ma‘ruf) and forbid the bad (al munkar).” The term awliya in this verse means alliance, mutual assistance and mutual reinforcement (Lamrabet, 2020). The gender segregation and gender inequality is not because of the teachers of the Qur’an but through a combination of legislation and strong cultural codes established in Saudi Arabia.

Like many other growing cities in the past century, the urban fabric of Riyadh was influenced by modernistic planning that resulted in an auto-dependant metropolis (Al-Hathloul, 1996). In this city layout, with 98% of journeys being made by cars in 2003 (ADA, 2003). Doctors were recommending more walking to women who were pregnant, but there were very few places to walk (Al-dolaimi, 1992) as there was little thought for the need of pavements.

The car dependant Riyadh from above (Lonely Planet, 2020)

This in combination with other factors led an urban redevelopment campaign called ‘Humanising the City’, which aimed to promote healthier city living through the creation and refurbishment of 61 streets aimed to be pedestrian friendly (Bin Ayyaf, 2015). These streets were nicknamed “shari‘ al-hawamil” (streets for pregnant women).

Newly renovated pavements in Riyadh allowing for people to walk more freely, although they tend to be dominated by men (Elsheshtawy, 2019)

But a development intended for the benefit of women, soon became a masculinised space, that women were seen to be intruding in (Almahmood, 2018). Restaurants and cafes on these streets used the pavements for outdoor seating (ibid). As men used this seating, it meant that women could not, as non-related men and women are not allowed to mix in public. Although this space was meant to be public, it became a dominate masculine space, not adhering to the inclusivity of ‘good public space’ as proposed by Jacobs (1961). Even the shops themselves are masculine places, as recently when a wall dividing the women’s and men’s lines fell down, a sign went up saying “PLEASE NO ENTRY FOR LADIES ONLY SEND YOUR DRIVER TO ORDER THANK YOU.” (Hanks, 2016). The gender hierarchy that is established in Saudi Arabia, means that women are seen to be intruding in the men’s space when in public (Almahmood, 2018). 

The gender hierarchy at play (Hanks, 2016)

Women in public, will wear an ‘abaya’ (exposing the face only) or a ‘niqab’ (exposing the eyes only) usually if not exclusively in black (Le Renard, 2014). In the less conservative city of Jeddah, non-black abaya’s are worn. Whereas in Riyadh this is not accepted for fear of rebuke from the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) (Gorney, 2020). There is no law that specifics the colour of the abaya or even the wearing of an abaya (ibid) with the crown prince has stated that the wearing of niqabs or abayas is not compulsory. But the social traditions are stronger than the law (Sly, 2020). Similarly, women were never explicitly banned from driving, but a license had to be issued (Lim, 2018), which were never issued to women and hence a ban on women driving occurred in all but name.

Illustration by Tabby Carless-Frost (Commissioned)

As well as trying to change the attitudes toward the wearing of the niqab or abaya, the crown prince since coming to power has also stripped the CPVPV the power of arrest (Sly, 2020). Previously the CPVPV used to patrol public spaces and arrest any men and women whom they suspected were not married or related, as well as chastising any women whom was not coving their hair or faces (Le Renard, 2014). Despite the powers of the of the CPVPV being curtailed, they continue to patrol public spaces, harassing women that they deem acting or dressed inappropriately (ibid).

The harassment by the CPVPV both before and after their arrest powers were curtailed had led to a growth in women’s only public spaces (Le Renard, 2014). Mamlakat al-mar’a (ladies’ kingdom) is a space at a shopping centre that is exclusively for women. In this space abayas can be taken off, as no men are present. This segregated space does not make customers feel isolated or marginalised, but admitted to a sort of VIP area, as women (ibid). This space is public although not inclusive. Borne out of the suppressive nature of the CPVPV as well as outdoor public spaces actual acting more like men’s spaces, this space is a form of liberation from the societal gender hierarchy experienced in other ‘public’ spaces.

More women are entering the workforce in Saudi Arabia, whom in 2018 made up 17% of the workforce, an increase from 7% in 1990 (World Bank, 2020). In 2006 a labour law reform removed the prohibitions of mixed sex spaces, however these have been sparsely implemented (Le Renard, 2014). Many offices where both women and men work have separate entrances and office space (ibid). The CPVPV are still powerful in the domain of women working, as there have been occasions where when men and women have worked together they have been shut down due to rumours that they were “places of debauchery” (ibid). In a response to this in Riyadh a women’s co-working space has been established called SheWorks (Michaelson, 2019).

Inside the women’s only workspace (Michaelson, 2019)

Meeting rooms for men are specially designed with two entrances, for men and women, that have a frosted glass wall between them to facilitate meetings whilst maintaining the gender division of the workspace. These spaces in the similar way to the shopping mall are emancipating as they are allowing female entrepreneurs to set up and run businesses without or facing threats from the CPVPV.

As Harvey (2003) says that the right to the city is not just about the right to access the city but an active right to make the city different. Women are changing their city, in response to the societal traditions and trying to reclaim their right to the city through establishing of female only workplaces and separate ‘public’ spaces. It remains to be seen if the Crown Prince will continue to attempt to liberalise many of Saudi Arabia’s laws and cultural norms. In the meantime, women will continue to make their own ‘public’ space that is not truly public at all.





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