Saudi Arabia has the world's most stringent gender segregation. Men and women enter government offices and banks through different doors. Male professors teach female university students from separate rooms using closed-circuit television. Companies must create all-female rooms or floors if they hire women. And the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce just announced different work hours for male and female employees so the two don't mix on arrival and departure.
Many Saudi women say this segregation is ordained by Islam and accept it. Others chafe. "Gender apartheid is the best word to describe the situation in Saudi Arabia," wrote blogger Eman al-Nafjan.
The ban on public mixing is rooted in tribal customs but became institutionalized as the country urbanized. Clerics claimed that Islam requires it – a debatable position since no other Muslim country has similar practices.
Like all Saudi rulers, King Abdullah derives his political legitimacy from religion and wants to maintain the loyalty of the clerical establishment. But he has telegraphed that conservatives won't be allowed to hold back reforms. When it comes to women, the king has chipped at the edges of restrictive traditions. He has taken women on foreign trips, had his photo taken with them, and expanded opportunities for females to attend university.
"King Abdullah has a strategy: He's trying to empower women as much as he can," says Fawziah al-Bakr, a King Saud University professor.
In September, the king inaugurated the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST), a graduate-level school devoted to advanced scientific research. To attract foreign faculty and students, the king decreed that it would be coed and independent of the state educational system.