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National NOW Times >> Summer 2002 >> Article

U.S. Companies Support Gender Segregation in Saudi Arabia

by Nicole Manning, Guest Writer

At least three major U.S. companies — including McDonald's, Pizza Hut and Starbucks — are reportedly upholding gender apartheid in their franchise stores in Saudi Arabia.

The companies have made a number of changes to their business practices in "deference" to Saudi customs, including maintaining segregated seating in their restaurants and having separate entrances for women and men. Starbucks even changed its corporate identity to do business in Saudi Arabia by altering its trademark mermaid logo, because in Saudi Arabia any display of the female form, even as a stylized graphic, is considered indecent. Ann Telnaes cartoon: 'McPartheid'

A U.S. official who recently returned from a tour of duty in Saudi Arabia described the segregated franchises in a letter to the Washington Post last December.

"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," the U.S. official wrote. "Worse, these firms will bar entrance to Western women who show up without their husbands."

Despite public outcry in the U.S., Starbucks — which touts "corporate social responsibility" on its web site, describing the company's philosophy of contributing positively to communities near its franchises — says it will not change the way it does business in Saudi Arabia. "As a guest in any country where we do business, we abstain from interference in local social, cultural and political matters," Peter Maslen, president of Starbucks, said in a public statement.

Activists, on the other hand, point out that religion, customs and "the dictates of society" were used for generations in the U.S. to justify slavery and racial segregation. Many believe that treating women in Saudi Arabia as second-class citizens in the name of local Saudi custom is no different.

Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive and must get a male relative's permission before having surgery, going to college, seeking a job or accepting a marriage proposal. The mutawa, or religious police, patrol the streets and shopping centers looking for anyone breaking the rules. Fifteen Arab school girls died recently in a school fire, reportedly after the religious police prevented their rescue. Why? Because the girls weren't wearing the obligatory head veil, and male firefighters were not permitted to enter the all-girls school.

Activists say that the companies' refusal to desegregate their Saudi Arabia stores proves they are far more concerned with profits than with basic human rights. And Dunkin' Donuts, reportedly, has set an example for the other businesses by refusing to go along with Saudi segregation.

"McDonald's and Starbucks claim to be sensitive to local customs and laws, but they choose to ignore universal human rights laws in favor of the laws of profit," said NOW Executive Vice President Karen Johnson. She added that late last year, Saudi Arabia became a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and acknowledged international criticism of its human rights practices. "We need more than lip service. We need an end to gender apartheid in Saudi Arabia."

NOW urges activists to raise their voices and demand that U.S. companies stop supporting gender apartheid in Saudi Arabia. Remind McDonald's, Starbucks and Pizza Hut of their moral responsibility to incorporate human rights principles into their business practices. Contact McDonald's at 630-623-3000 or fax 630-623-5004; Pizza Hut at 800-948-8488 or fax 972-338-7780; Starbucks at 206-447-1575, ext. 82900 or fax 206-447-0828.

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