The label ‘Apartheid’ is bandied around frequently these days, sadly it hasn’t stuck to the one State who, in my humble opinion, not only deserves it but whose human rights atrocities are routinely ignored and glossed over by the International Community for the sake of not rocking the boat. Unlike other States, whose human rights atrocities are more fashionable as cause celebres, Saudi Arabia’s prolific human rights abuses are ignored for the sake of business as usual.
Apartheid is originally defined as a system of institutionalised racial segregation and discrimination in South Africa between 1948 and 1994. What Saudi Arabia practices is a system of institutionalised gender segregation and discrimination. Feminist psychologist Phyllis Chesler defines Gender Apartheid as ‘practices which condemn girls and women to a separate and subordinate sub-existence…’ These descriptions describe the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia accurately and I’m not the only Arab Woman who thinks so:
Gender Apartheid is the best word to describe the situation in Saudi Arabia. I don’t believe there is any other place in the world where gender decides everything a person does on a daily basis and to the minutest details. To the outside world this manifests in the ban on women driving and the compulsory Abaya. However, it goes much deeper than that in that gender discrimination is institutionalized in every sector of the Saudi government. The majority of government ministries are off limits to women, both as visitors and as employees.
Women in the Kingdom, a 2008 Human Rights Watch report maintains, are infringes on their basic human rights. In other words, every adult Saudi woman, regardless of her economic or social status, must obtain permission from her male guardian to work, travel, study, seek medical treatment or marry. She is also deprived of making the most trivial decisions on behalf of her children. This system is supported by the imposition of complete sex segregation, which prevents women from participating meaningfully in public life.
I must stress that most Arab countries don’t enforce gender segregation on anywhere near the scale that Saudi Arabia does. In the majority of the Arab nations the headscarf is not a mandatory requirement and women are both welcome and encouraged to be part of civic life. Saudi Arabia is an outlier even amongst Gulf States, and the behaviour of Saudi tars all her immediate neighbours with the same brush. The other Gulf States have become more sensitive to Western criticism in recent years. Most have put a great deal of time, money and effort into upgrading their institutions and legal systems, though progress is painfully slow at times. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, remains deaf to both internal and external calls for reform.
Saudi Arabia practices the most overt, inhuman and unapologetic form of Apartheid on the face of the contemporary world. In comparison to Apartheid South Africa, the Saudi Kingdom has got off easy, with a fraction of the censure from the International Community very little of which has been official. It is time we started calling Saudi Arabia an Apartheid State and giving it the condemnation it deserves. I look forward to the intense reinvigoration of Anti-Apartheid movements with its ire directed at the Saudi State.