From age 3 or 4 on, girls and boys are separated in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
My students told me that it is for the best, because boys are rougher, tougher and more competitive than girls. Girls are delicate, easily bruised and need gentle handling. I protested that I know some very gentle boys, and some rough and tough little girls. Are they the exception? Perhaps. And perhaps not.
I explained to them that I hated delicate, lacy dresses, frilly socks and straightened, bow-tied hair. Maybe I was the exception. I told them that I know boys who are particular about their hair, their clothes and sometimes even wear a little make-up. Maybe they are the exception. I thought about macho, strong women like Laila Ali, Billy Jean King, Martina Navratilova, and metrosexual men like Bradley Cooper, Ludacris and Ben Affleck. I thought about intellectually strong women like Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice, and bell hooks. There are too many exceptions to name, and the exceptions begin to become more the rule and less the exception
In the KSA, girls do not compete athletically. There are no physical education classes for girls. There are no sports programs for girls. The exception to that exists in private, exclusive and expensive schools. There is a pervasive belief that girls do not need to exercise or compete athletically. Only boys compete, only boys are athletes, only boys need physical education. I am reminded of the USA during the post-Women’s Liberation Movement, not so very long ago.
Nevertheless, the KSA is becoming the world leader in the education of women. Princess Noura University, located in Riyadh, is the world’s largest all female university. This university education is free, and students are in fact paid to attend. There are many independent businesses owned and operated by women. Women are leading Saudi Arabia to changes in attitude, tradition and practices.
My students also went on to argue that while girls may need more exposure to physical education, men and women should absolutely not work together. That is far too much temptation. Married men will cheat and married women will cheat. I argued that if a man or woman wants to cheat, he or she will find a way, no matter what. I think that my students considered that this may be true, but it is better to keep men and women separate in the workplace. But, not all of them agreed.
I have seen Saudi women working in mall shops, in hypermarkets and supermarkets, and working alongside men in those places. Things are changing.
I have heard some of my married students complain that their husbands do not and cannot talk with them productively, and I admitted that this is not a problem particular to the KSA, but a common complaint among women all over the world.
However, how far should segregation go before it hinders the ability of men to effectively interact with women, damages the self-esteem of those women, and halts the social, communication and economic development of both?
In the KSA, it has gone far. But, things are changing.