Saudi Women to Get Their Own 'City'

(Image Credit: Fayek Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

Reporter's Notebook by ABC News' Lara Setrakian:

Separate has never meant equal in Saudi Arabia. But a new women-only development in Saudi's Eastern Province is aimed at moving women forward, easing more of them into the workplace.

The new industrial "city" is expected to create about 5,000 jobs in women-run factories and firms, The Guardian newspaper reported. The site will be equipped "for women workers … consistent with the privacy of women according to Islamic guidelines and regulations," the Saudi Industrial Property Authority (Modon) said in a statement.

Women and men are kept separate in the Saudi kingdom, where a strict interpretation of Islam dominates the public arena. That poses a specific challenge to women workers, especially at the lower end of the income scale. They often can't interview for jobs with male bosses and need special accommodations to get to work, because they're not allowed to drive or spend their wages on a driver.

That's why Samar Fatany, a Saudi radio host and one of the Kingdom's prominent female voices, says the all-female development is a good thing. What seems like more segregation to outsiders looks like empowerment in Saudis' eyes.

"Otherwise, they won't have that kind of opportunity to work," Fatany told ABC News. "Their culture and environment won't let them work any other way.

"It's an opportunity to have an income, be financially independent. It's an economic necessity."

That point was clear in 2010, when I visited with women at all-female factories in Riyadh. Of the women who worked the assembly lines, packing boxes and manufacturing light fixtures, most were single mothers, abandoned by their husbands and desperately in need of an income. A wall separated them from the male factory workers on the other side, with only a few conveyer belts snaking through to unite the production line.

Those women wanted to work in segregated quarters. With their conservative families and personal religious values, they wouldn't have taken a job that involved mixing with men.

The new development, to open next year, falls in line with a Saudi government push to put more women in the workplace, a delicate balance between a more modern Saudi Arabia and the occasional backlash from conservative clerics.

If Saudi men are threatened by women's empowerment, some say it might be because they're suddenly being outperformed in the workplace.

"To me, a Saudi woman is a better worker than the Saudi men," said Khaled al Maeena, editor-in-chief of the Saudi Gazette and Fatany's husband. "They work hard and they try hard."

He says Saudi women place more value on their hard-won opportunities.

"Women are more committed, they like to work more, they don't give excuses, disappearing as men do," he said. "It's a state of mind."