Saudi Arabia maintains strict sex segregation in almost all walks of life, fining companies that don't maintain separate spaces for their male and female employees and empowering the religious police to arrest men and women unrelated to each other for "unlawful mixing."
Yet, in 2013, when the late King Abdullah appointed 30 women to the Shura Council, the highest advisory body to the king, he allowed women to sit in the same room as men, and they still do.
Not so for the 38 women who won seats on municipal councils following historic elections in December.
Less than two months later, Saudi Arabia ordered them to sit in separate rooms, away from their male colleagues and to participate by video link, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month.
Under the new regulations, any workshops or meetings organized by municipal councils with men and women must also be segregated.
The elections in December, when women, for the first time in Saudi Arabia's history, ran and won seats in municipal council elections, were hailed inside and outside the country as a huge symbolic stride.
But in the first meeting of Jeddah's municipal council, on Jan. 6, a few men refused to sit at the same table with two female colleagues.
After the two women refused to sit behind a partition wall, insisting on being at the same table, Arab News reported they received death threats on their phones.
The incident provoked a storm of criticism in Saudi Arabia, with women and men debating the issue on Twitter and local columnists criticizing the male council members who demanded segregation.
Three weeks later, instead of upholding women's right to participate on an equal basis with men in the councils, the government backed the male representatives' position.
Big Step Backwards
This is a significant step backwards, particularly when you remember that the presence of women was not causing problems in the Shura Council, a higher political body, or even at every municipal council.
A rights activist told us that some municipal councils had been allowing women and men to sit in the same room during meetings.
But she thinks that with these new regulations, those councils will start segregating. She adds that the rules will inhibit female representatives from participating effectively in the councils, particularly in smaller, specialized committees and meetings and workshops organized with the public.
She says she and others may not vote for female candidates in future elections, knowing they are marginalized on the councils.
Women in Saudi Arabia work hard for every inch they gain.
They campaigned for the right to participate in council elections –Saudi Arabia's only countrywide elections – since they began in 2005.
In 2015, campaign rules imposed on all candidates and registration requirements on all voters put women at a disadvantage. They were required to address male voters – 90 percent of the voting pool – through a male spokesperson. Women hoping to vote were required to provide documents such as proof of residence or a family card, often held by a male guardian, in order to register.
One woman told us she spent two weeks visiting various government offices to procure the necessary paperwork for herself and her daughters.
Nevertheless, Saudi women pushed past the obstacles and participated, and voters – men and women – ultimately elected 21 women, out of 2,106 contested seats, to the councils.
An additional 17 women were later appointed to the one-third of council positions selected by the authorities, for a total of 38 seats held by women of the 3,159 seats available on 284 local councils.
These women are now being asked to participate, but separately; to contribute, but from a different room.
As history has so often shown, separate is simply a euphemism for unequal. Women in Saudi Arabia deserve better. They have the right to participate fully in council deliberations and in broader public life – in the same room, at the same table, and with the same level of respect.