Saudi Arabia female bank employees to be partitioned away from their male colleagues

Female bank employees are being partitioned away from their male colleagues in their workplaces under new rules enforcing segregation of the sexes.

In one case, a woman banker reported to work only to be told she would no longer be working at her usual place alongside her male colleagues. Her office has been relocated to a women-only suite, set up on the ground floor so she and other female bankers won't mix with men taking the elevators to higher floors.

Another woman has been told she will soon be separated from her male colleagues by partitions being erected in a corner of the spacious floor she has long shared with them. Both women spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their careers.

Saudi Arabia has long enforced a strict Islamic lifestyle in which men and women are segregated in public, including at schools, universities, restaurants, lines outside international fast food outlets and bank branches catering to customers.

But the latest measures targeting several bank headquarters in Riyadh have stunned many female bankers who believed the government had turned a blind eye to the mixed environment at their offices because it wanted Saudi women to advance at work.

Women have long been banned from several professions, especially in the legal system, and academic majors, such as engineering, journalism and geology. The kingdom's labor law prohibits the employment of women in "hazardous jobs or industires" and allows them to work only "in all fields suitable to their nature" without specifying what those are.

Banking is one of the few professions where Saudi women have gained more rights in the past few years as part of a reform drive. Female bankers say they now make up to 15 percent of the staff.

No one knows exactly who issued the new segregation rules. Managers have refused to provide written orders to women.

Officials at the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency, the kingdom's central bank which many suspect is behind the new action, did not return several calls The Associated Press made on Sunday and Monday.

The measures are a major setback for women, who have long struggled to prove themselves in this male-dominated society. Saudi women are believed to make up less than 10 percent of the workforce and have mostly worked in the education and health sectors.

Saudi women say the new rules contradict government assertions that it wants to provide women with more employment opportunities. They also contend the rules constitute a breach of several agreements Saudi Arabia has signed with international organizations, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

"Nothing has been done to eliminate discrimination against women," said historian Hatoon al-Fassi. "The new measures discourage women from work and from seeking leaderhip positions, and they encourage employers to hire men instead."

Five female bankers interviewed by the AP said they worry the measures would deprive them of their jobs or lead to their demotion. They said they doubt the orders will be reversed because it will be hard for officials to defend actions that the religious establishment deems offensive.

The women insist they were not breaching Islamic principles by working with men. They said banks already had strict rules governing interactions between the sexes. For example, female staffers had to keep the mandatory black abaya, or cloak, and veil on at all times. They could not wear make-up, hold closed-door meetings with the male staff or date them.

Many also could not attend business lunches with male clients for fear the religious police would arrest them for illegally mixing with men.

The women said they don't know how the banks will function with key staffers and executives hidden away on different floors or behind partitions.

"How will we evolve? How will we learn? This is going to be a disaster for our careers," said the woman who will soon be working behind partitions.

The woman ordered to the ground floor said not only her working conditions were changed, but also her duties. Her bosses would not tell her why her she was given a different job. It was only when she saw a story about the new measures on the Web site of the Dubai-based, Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV that she understood.

"My life changed overnight," said the woman. "I can't attend meetings. I can only talk to my male colleagues by phone. ... It's a big mess."