By Alexandra Gandolfo
It’s something Western women would never dream of seeing at their favorite local coffee shop, but on Feb. 1 a sign appeared on the door of a Riyadh Starbucks that read, “PLEASE NO ENTRY FOR LADIES ONLY SEND YOUR DRIVER IN TO ORDER THANK YOU.” The sign, which was posted after a wall that separates men and women in the coffee shop was compromised, has sparked local and global outrage.
Separation of the sexes is not a strange thing in Saudi Arabia, a country where women cannot drive and have limited opportunities to work. In extreme cases, women cannot even be seen by a medical expert without the consent of their husbands. However, they’ve still found ways to socialize with other women and, in some way or another, get out of the house.
With its sign, Starbucks denied women what could be their daily dose of freedom, while remaining open to men. That begs the question: Why didn’t Starbucks close down completely until the wall was fixed? Why did it deny female guests only? This query has gotten online people-politics movements like Avaaz up in arms. It is a problem that, ultimately, Avaaz says, has a dollar sign at the end of it. According to its press release announcing a petition against Starbucks, “Right now we can push back and stop Starbucks’ complicity in Saudi Arabia’s extreme sexism. Starbucks’ global sales are plateauing, and any slip-ups could significantly impact its share price. Meanwhile, refusing to serve women and segregating them from men – often into more run-down spaces – contradicts the company’s commitment to ‘eliminating discriminatory practices.’” The petition comes just weeks before Starbucks’ annual shareholders meeting.
The ban was lifted on Feb. 8, but Avaaz has not dropped the petition, or seemingly the movement for gender equality in Saudi Arabia. In a statement, Starbucks said that it “adhere[s] to the local customs of Saudi Arabia by providing separate entrances for families as well as single people,” adding that “in addition, all our stores provide equal amenities, service, menu, and seating to men, women, and families.”
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