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My Thoughts on Saudia’s Gender Segregation Scandal

Photo credit: English: Wo st 01 (There are 637  / iW / CC BY-SA

The Twittersphere was pretty riled up yesterday about the news that Saudi Arabian Airlines may introduce gender segregation on their flights. Well, it turns out this was more or less made up by an overzealous Twitter user who was trying to make the day more interesting. What I found interesting was how quickly the discussion became racist. On one side were people who didn’t understand Middle Eastern culture and wrote it off as “backwards,” followed by accusations of misogyny and a general condemnation of Islam and Arab culture. 

On the other side, people were supporting this policy: Either because they understood the cultural reasons behind it (in particular, that it isn’t about subjugating women), they experienced harassment on a plane, or because they had a negative opinion of Arab or Muslim men and saw an opportunity to point to their inferiority. Arab men have been thrown under the bus as “savages” who can’t be near women without abusing them. Needless to say, this is beyond absurd, not to mention highly offensive.

When I read Elena’s well written post on the topic, I thought I’d chime in with my own thoughts. While it’s already been debunked as a myth, the topic of gender segregation has been coming up quite a bit, with men from the Haredi Jewish community coming under fire for refusing to sit next to women on planes. If any airline actually implemented a gender segregation policy, I wouldn’t see a problem with it. I know enough about Islam and Middle Eastern culture to understand that gender segregation isn’t so much for the benefit of men than it is for women. Talk to any Saudi woman and I guarantee she’d prefer not to sit in a cramped seat next to a strange man on a flight of any length. Then there is the common reality of being a woman anywhere in the world: You’re going to encounter sexual harassment in your daily life, an experience that is amplified while traveling alone.

I personally know one too many women who have been sexually abused on domestic flights – by non- Arab, non-Muslim men sitting next to them. So let’s debunk this myth that sexual harassment is only an issue in Arab or Islamic countries. I’ve encountered harassment while traveling, walking down the street, taking public transportation, and even in a professional environment with highly educated and “civilized” individuals. Not only is this a reality in most women’s lives, but so is the fact that the perpetrators often go unpunished. Middle Eastern cultures are hyper vigilant about preventing these scenarios, which is why relatively extreme precautions are taken. Whether segregation is a correct way to handle the problem or not, the fact remains that gender segregation isn’t about subjugating women, it’s not an indication that all men of certain cultures are savages, it’s about preventing the very common occurrences of sexual harassment that women of all cultures deal with on a constant basis. 

As for the idea that gender segregation stems from men viewing women as inferior, I find that notion ridiculous. There is a tendency to vilify men in this situation and misconstrue their intentions. A perfect example of this was the story a few months back about the Haredi men who held up an El Al flight because they did not want to sit next to women. Shortly after the incident, one of the women wrote about her experience in the Huffington Post. She took the incident to be a personal attack, branding the men as misogynistic, which I found really unfair and dramatic. The way I saw it, it wasn’t personal nor was it sexist or misogynistic. It was about safety and maintaining a social order – not at the expense of women but for their benefit. 

The idea behind these seemingly extreme social/religious principles is that everyone follows them so there is no guessing whether, as a woman, you end up sitting next to a civilized person or a pervert who is going to feel you up just as soon as you doze off. 

Those are my two cents on the subject. Some of you will probably disagree with me. By all means, feel free to let me know in the comment section. As usual, if you want to be heard, please keep it civil.

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Ariana Arghandewal

15 Comments

  1. I can’t imagine why Ariana would lie about her experiences as a single woman traveling alone in civilized and “uncivilized” countries. Since I, 1) Am not a woman 2) Have very little personal experience with either Arab men or Middle Eastern culture and 3) Have no experience with Islam or with the Haredi Jewish customs I choose to listen to and respect those that do. I take this as an opportunity to increase my knowledge on all these things and resist the temptation to reveal my ignorance by speaking on things of which I have no knowledge.

    I appreciate your honest opinions regarding this subject and consider myself more enlightened than I was before I read your piece.

    • Thanks for sharing your feedback, Bob. I’m glad this piece was insightful. Totally agree with you about the importance of increasing one’s knowledge on topics we don’t understand.

  2. Thanks Ariana for a very insightful article supported with you internal reflections/thoughts/experience.
    I will have no problem with this policy bec it doesn’t matter either way to me (Airline is not a singles bar to meet your next spouse or girl-friend or fiance).
    But some people will see this as a sexist policy or vilify the religion bec either they have pre-conditioned idea (too much Fox news or right -wing extremist news media) about Islam or it is totally foreign to them.

    • Thank you. I initially wasn’t going to comment on this, but I realized this rampant ignorance exists because there is only one perspective out there – and it’s one that is geared towards sensationalism rather than the truth.

  3. Interesting that women reporters were not groped/raped in Furgeuson, NYC, or Oakland as they were in Cairo during the Arab Spring and subsequent unrest.

    Or what about the Taliban and how they treat women or the education of young women (ex Malala Yousafzai).

    There are still plenty of backward savages out there!!

    • It doesn’t take a protest to cause harassment on the streets of NYC or Oakland (a place I worked in for 3 years and experienced harassment constantly). Plenty of women were groped/raped in the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina. Plenty of female reporters are sexually harassed in the office by their co-workers and supervisors. I know women who lived during the Taliban regime and felt much safer than they did when one of the US allied warlords ruled Kabul. The ones whose soldiers spent their days actually groping women when they walked by and storming their homes at night to rape them. As I said, there are backwards savages in every sector of society, so we shouldn’t be quick to make blanket statements about a particular group of people or places.

  4. Very, very interesting post Ariana…. and kudos to you for having the courage to post it. Happens I teach courses in this realm, have traveled widely in the region — and I’ll be using Mona Eltahawy’s forthcoming “Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution” in my upcoming mest courses….. (you should read her work too) I also have Afghani students, including one who was forced by the Taliban thugs to marry at age 8. While I appreciate your comparative argument (re. the brutality of western life) and the point that in certain contexts, the idea of segregation is to protest women from unwanted mistreatment (etc), your blanket apologia for Islamic experience would likely raise storms of protest from…. Islamic feminists…. that is from pious Muslim/Arab women so very tired of being told they’re not permitted to drive (Saudi style) becuz they need this or that womanly function to be protected… (google “no woman, no drive”) Would you be ok if the paternalistic Saudis put women (and Shia) in the back of the plane, with the upper crust, privileged Wahhabi men in the front? There’s got a to be a better solution that “segregation” on a plane. (and puhleeeeaze, enough with the “blanket” defensiveness of the most extreme of the Wahhabis…. Oh Lordy, imagine how ISIS air would handle the issue)

    • Thanks for your feedback, Will. I’m not advocating the abuse and mistreatment of women – I made it pretty clear that I’m against it, having experienced it myself. Sexism and misogyny exists as much in corporate America as it does anywhere else – this is coming from someone who was born in Kabul, lived in Germany, the US, and spent time as an adult in Afghanistan. If Islamic feminists reject the explanation I’ve provided, it’s an indication that they’re not well versed in the religion they claim to practice and represent. If an airline wants to offer a segregated seating arrangement for women who are traveling alone, I imagine many women (Saudi and otherwise) would take advantage of it. The voting/driving issue is something to get outraged about. In fact, it irks me that more women (Saudis, experts, Muslim women living elsewhere) aren’t doing enough to speak out about those pivotal issues that clearly stem from sexism, unlike the seating issue, which in my opinion does not. By the way, the proper term for people from Afghanistan is Afghans rather than Afghanis.

  5. I think the term “segregation” has a lot of negative connotations to it, as it reminds American readers of racial segregation in its history.

    Practically, having separate seating for men and women could be reasonable, depending on the context. Trains in Japan, for instance, have women-only cars, precisely to prevent women from being groped, as is more likely to happen during rush-hour situations and you have everyone cramped up together in the car, allowing perverts their dream opportunity to go about their sickening behavior.

    So I will say this comes down to a marketing problem. And yes, the inherent bias of views people might have towards Saudi Arabia and their society, and how they rightly or wrongly treat women in their society.

    Certainly reading something about “women-only cabins” probably would not be as controversial. The term “men-only cabins” would however be, as it reminds folks of the past when women were not allowed membership in men’s-only clubs.

    It really comes down to context, and the loaded terms associated with the words used.

    • That’s a good point about context and terminology. I just read an article about Nepal enacting women-only bus lines to combat sexual harassment. That definitely sounds better than “we’re going to separate the genders in order to appease men who don’t want strange men sitting next to their wives.”

  6. Thank you for sharing your perspective on this. I have much more to learn about other cultural and religious norms around the world.

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