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The term gender apartheid (sometimes called sex apartheid) is used to describe sexual discrimination, particularly strict gender-based segregation[1] in some Muslim countries where women are segregated on the basis of sex from men in public and do not enjoy legal equality or equal access to employment or education.


Afghanistan, under Taliban religious leadership, has been characterized by feminist groups and others as a "gender apartheid" system where women are segregated from men in public and do not enjoy legal equality or equal access to employment or education.[2] [3] In 1997 the Feminist Majority Foundation launched a "Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan", which urged the U.S. government and the United Nations to "do everything in their power to restore the human rights of Afghan women and girls." The campaign included a petition to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and U.N. Assistant Secretary General Angela King which stated, in part, that "We, the undersigned, deplore the Taliban’s brutal decrees and gender apartheid in Afghanistan."[4] In 1998 activists from the National Organization of Women picketed Unocal's Sugar Land, Texas office, arguing that its proposed pipeline through Afghanistan was collaborating with "gender apartheid".[5] In a weekly presidential address in November 2001 Laura Bush also accused the Taliban of practising "gender apartheid".[6] The Nation referred to the Taliban's 1997 order that medical services for women be partly or completely suspended in all hospitals in the capital city of Kabul as "Health apartheid".[7] According to the Women's Human Rights Resource Programme of the University of Toronto Bora Laskin Law Library "Throughout the duration of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, the term "Gender Apartheid" was used by a number of women's rights advocates to convey the message that the rights violations experience by Afghan women were in substance no different than those experienced by blacks in Apartheid South Africa." [8]


Iran has also been accused of implementing a "gender apartheid" system at the behest of religious leaders.[9] In an article titled "Islamic gender apartheid" Phyllis Chesler asserts that:

"In a democratic, modern, and feminist era, women in the Islamic world are not treated as human beings. Women in Iran and elsewhere in the Islamic world are viewed as the source of all evil. Their every move is brutally monitored and curtailed. The smallest infraction – a wanton wisp of hair escaping a headscarf – merits maximum punishment: Flogging in public, or worse. This is happening in Iran even as we speak. In 2005, a hospital in Tehran was accused of refusing entry to women who did not wear head-to-toe covering. In 2002, in Saudi Arabia, religious policemen prevented 14 year old schoolgirls from leaving a burning school building because they were not wearing their headscarves and abayahs. Fifteen girls died."[10]


In 2006 Marina Mahathir, the daughter of Malaysia's former Prime Minister, and a campaigner for women's rights, described the status of Muslim women in Malaysia as similar to that of Black South Africans under apartheid. She was apparently doing so in response to new family laws which make it easier for Muslim men to divorce wives, or take multiple wives, or gain access to their property. Mahathir stated ""In our country, there is an insidious growing form of apartheid among Malaysian women, that between Muslim and non-Muslim women."[11] According to the BBC, she sees Muslim Malaysian women as "subject to a form of apartheid - second-class citizens held back by discriminatory rules that do not apply to non-Muslim women."[12] Her comments were strongly criticized: the Malaysian Muslim Professionals Forum stated "Her prejudiced views and assumptions smack of ignorance of the objectives and methodology of the Sharia, and a slavish capitulation to western feminism's notions of women's rights, gender equality and sexuality," and Dr Harlina Halizah Siraj, women's chief of the reform group Jamaah Islah Malaysia said "Women in Malaysia are given unlimited opportunities to obtain high education level, we are free to choose our profession and career besides enjoying high standard of living with our families."[11]

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia's practices with respect women have been referred to as "gender apartheid". [13] [14] Andrea Dworkin referred to these practices simply as "apartheid":

Seductive mirages of progress notwithstanding, nowhere in the world is apartheid practiced with more cruelty and finality than in Saudi Arabia. Of course, it is women who are locked in and kept out, exiled to invisibility and abject powerlessness within their own country. It is women who are degraded systematically from birth to early death, utterly and totally and without exception deprived of freedom. It is women who are sold into marriage or concubinage, often before puberty; killed if their hymens are not intact on the wedding night; kept confined, ignorant, pregnant, poor, without choice or recourse. It is women who are raped and beaten with full sanction of the law. It is women who cannot own property or work for a living or determine in any way the circumstances of their own lives. It is women who are subject to a despotism that knows no restraint. Women locked out and locked in.[15]

Saudi Arabia's treatment of women has also been described as "sexual apartheid". [16] Colbert I. King quotes an American official who accuses Western companies of complicity in Saudia Arabia's sexual apartheid:

One of the (still) untold stories, however, is the cooperation of U.S. and other Western companies in enforcing sexual apartheid in Saudi Arabia. McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, and other U.S. firms, for instance, maintain strictly segregated eating zones in their restaurants. The men's sections are typically lavish, comfortable and up to Western standards, whereas the women's or families' sections are often run-down, neglected and, in the case of Starbucks, have no seats. Worse, these firms will bar entrance to Western women who show up without their husbands. My wife and other [U.S. government affiliated] women were regularly forbidden entrance to the local McDonald's unless there was a man with them." [17]

Azar Majedi, of the Centre for Women and Socialism, attributes sexual apartheid in Saudi Arabia to political Islam:

Women are the first victims of political Islam and Islamic terrorist gangs. Sexual apartheid, stoning, compulsory Islamic veil and covering and stripping women of all rights are the fruits of this reactionary and fascistic movement. Political Islam has committed countless crimes both where they are in power, like the Islamic Republic in Iran, the Mujahedin and the Taliban in Afghanistan, in the Sudan and in Saudi Arabia, and where they are in opposition, as in Algeria, Pakistan and Egypt. Terrorising the population is the policy and strategy of this force for seizing power.[18]

According to The Guardian, "[i]n the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, sexual apartheid rules", and this sexual apartheid is enforced by mutawa, religious police, though not as strongly in some areas:

The kingdom's sexual apartheid is enforced, in a crude fashion, by the religious police, the mutawa. Thuggish, bigoted and with little real training in Islamic law, they are much feared in some areas but also increasingly ridiculed. In Jeddah - a more laid-back city than Riyadh - they are rarely seen nowadays.[19]

Christian churches

The terms gender apartheid and sexual apartheid have also been used to describe differential treatment of women in institutions such as the Church of England[20] or the Roman Catholic Church. See, for example, Patricia Budd Kepler in her 1978 Theology Today article "Women Clergy and the Cultural Order".[21]


  2. Hunter, D. Lyn. Gender Apartheid Under Afghanistan's Taliban The Berkleyan, March 17, 1999.
  3. The Taliban & Afghan Women: Background, Feminist Majority Foundation website, Accessed June 25, 2006.
  4. Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan (PDF), Global Petition Flyer, Feminist Majority Foundation.
  5. Women Around the Globe Face Threats to Human Rights, National Organization of Women, Fall 1998.
  6. Otis, John. First lady slams 'gender apartheid', Houston Chronicle News Service, November 18, 2001.
  7. Block, Max. Kabul's Health Apartheid, The Nation, November 24, 1997.
  8. Women in Afghanistan, Women's Human Rights Resource Programme, University of Toronto Bora Laskin Law Library.
  10. Phyllis Chesler, "Islamic Gender Apartheid", [], December 16, 2005
  11. 11.0 11.1
  13. Jensen, Rita Henley. Taking the Gender Apartheid Tour in Saudi Arabia, Women's eNews, 03/07/2005.
  14. Handrahan, L.M. Gender Aparteid and Cultural Absolution: Saudi Arabia and the International Criminal Court, Human Rights Internet, Human Rights Tribune, Vol. 8, No. 1, Spring 2001.
  15. Dworkin, Andrea. A Feminist Looks at Saudi Arabia, 1978. In "Letters from a War Zone: Writings 1976-1989", Lawrence Hill Books, Reprint edition (May 28, 1993). ISBN 1-55652-185-5
  17. King, Colbert I. Saudi Arabia's Apartheid, The Washington Post, December 22, 2001.
  18. Majedi, Azar. Sexual Apartheid is a Product of Political Islam, Medusa - the Journal of the Centre for Women and Socialism.
  19. Whitaker, Brian. Veil power, "Special Report: Saudi Arabia", The Guardian, February 21, 2006.

See also

External links

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