As politicians bicker about whether a lack of taxpayer funded family planning constitutes a ‘war on women,’ novel city development proposals in Saudi Arabia promise new opportunities for women under a dated segregation system.

Saudi Arabia’s guardianship rules require male permission for women to participate in basic functions like travel, studies, or work. Until three years ago, women were required to do all business through a male  representative. Why?

Human Rights Watch Senior Researcher Christopher Wilke explains:

…according to a 2003 treatise by the Saudi religious scholar Dr. Rabee al-Madkhali, God endowed men and women with different rights and duties, men’s “appropriate to their manhood and their strengths and their minds and their willingness to face the dangers,” and women’s according to “what befits their femininity and vulnerability and lacking compared to men in mind, strength and vulnerability in the willingness to face the dangers and hardships.” Whereas men have a duty to provide for women, women in turn must obey their male guardians and care for house and children.

As you can see, such standards make it difficult for women to live as free agents, pursuing economic, career, health, or personal fulfillment.

In response to this, a group Saudi businesswomen have suggested building a series of industrial cities designed to provide the opportunity for women to join the workforce. Modon, Saudi Arabia’s authority on land development, announced it has initiated planning and development of the first such city. The city is expected to bring $133 million in investments and about 5,000 jobs.

I am encouraged to see Saudi Arabia take measures to provide opportunities for women to pursue careers and income in a formerly hostile environment. Noteably, this is a step towards equality and will promote a stronger economy for its people.

Though 60 percent Saudi Arabia’s of college graduates are women, only 15 percent are in the workforce. This leaves 78 percent of women college graduates unemployed.

There was initial confusion as to whether the city will be women-only. Western media, who reported such, was sharply corrected last week by Al Alarabiya a major competitor to Al Jazeera. Modon clarified men will also work within the industrial city.

Clearly, segregation remains a significant problem if women have to move to adapted cities in order to pursue work. But this small step may result in lasting change for the women of Saudi Arabia.