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Monday, July 02, 2007

Using religion to promote sexism

Imagine a nation where there is institutionalized racism. Imagine that in the workplace, blacks and whites must sit separately with partitions in between; where black workers can only deal with other blacks and white workers can only have white customers. Imagine that black people had to wear different clothing from whites and had to cover their faces.

Now try to imagine how the West would act towards that nation.

If you substitute sexism for racism, you don't have to imagine very much. As today's Saudi-based Arab News reports, it is happening now:
JEDDAH, 2 July 2007 — There will be stricter measures enforced to segregate men and women from each other at banks’ headquarters, but there is no official written circular yet regarding that.

According to various reports by news agencies that have spoken to bank managers and women bankers, Saudi authorities have ordered banks to separate female and male workers at their headquarters where they used to work together.

...Men and women bank customers have always been separated with their own branches. A manager at the National Commercial Bank said that female and male employees are completely separated even during training courses and at meetings. A partition has been placed at every floor where there are women employees, which was not the situation at the bank’s headquarters in Jeddah until a few months ago.

Another bank also confirmed that there are strict measures now for separating the male and female employees, but neither bank received any circular from SAMA, according to the managers.

The report by Reuters claims that officials from SAMA and the Labor Ministry held a meeting earlier this month with bank managers to inform of the new system and they had until the end of the summer holidays to implement these rules.

The banks are expected to provide separate floors, elevators, entrance and cafeterias for the men and women. The women bankers feel that this will hurt their careers because it will deprive them of the opportunity to exchange experiences, meet clients and compete for positions on equal basis with men.

An official in SAMA denied that there are new rules or directives but admitted that banks are expected to segregate.

There has been many complaints and written requests from different government agencies to strictly enforce the segregation because some banks continue to have mixed administrations at their headquarters,” he told Arab News.

Some of these government agencies included the Riyadh municipality and the Commission for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue in addition to some civilians voicing their objections to the mixing.

A manager at a bank in Jeddah said that the Ministry of Labor also requires that there is strict separation and that there are inspection teams that visit the branches and headquarters, just as they do with other business and shops, to observe implementation of this rule.

Now, is this a Koranic rule? Does Islamic law state that men and women may not see each other at work? Were the banks that didn't segregate last year violate Shari'a?

Or is it more likely that the perverted men who run the "Commission for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue" are flexing their political muscles?

Now, it would be very easy for the US to put a dent in this institutionalized sexism. But because of the fear of offending the Muslim street, we turn a blind eye to discrimination that is far worse than anything that apartheid South Africa ever contemplated.

I am not saying that Islamic law needs to be violated. I am saying that this clearly has nothing to do with Islamic law, and imposing a bizarre and arbitrary set of sexist standards on a society at large is something that should be fought with the same tenacity that other discrimination is fought.