In response to last week's column concerning treatment of women in the Middle East, an American official who just completed a tour of duty in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, wrote: "As a husband and as a father of a teenage daughter, I can assure you that life even for Western women in Saudi Arabia is every bit as bad as you describe. Saudi official assurances that non-Muslims need not follow Muslim codes of dress and behavior are utter nonsense, and the very real threat of punishment or abuse for not wearing abbayas [head-to-toe black cloaks] or for going out unaccompanied leaves most Western women in Riyadh to live lives of silent depression."

He said he and his wife were amused to read early press reports from Afghanistan about the oppression of women and religious minorities. "Virtually everything described there was taking place in Saudi Arabia, with the exception that at least the Taliban permitted other religions to exist in their country. This is absolutely forbidden in Saudi Arabia."

Then he threw in this grabber: "One of the (still) untold stories, however, is the cooperation of U.S. and other Western companies in enforcing sexual apartheid in Saudi Arabia. McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, and other U.S. firms, for instance, maintain strictly segregated eating zones in their restaurants. 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. Worse, these firms will bar entrance to Western women who show up without their husbands. My wife and other [U.S. government affiliated] women were regularly forbidden entrance to the local McDonald's unless there was a man with them."

He said the only exception to their humiliation was Dunkin' Donuts, "which had an open seating area in which men and women freely ate at adjoining tables just as in the West.

"This willing compliance with apartheid on the part of U.S. firms was perhaps the most galling." I was in Riyadh and Jeddah in Saudi Arabia during the 1980s; the forced seclusion of women from public life is nothing new. But Riyadh didn't have a McDonald's at the time. The kingdom got its first Mickey D's in 1993. Therefore, I don't pretend to know whether McDonald's or U.S. restaurants have a policy of aiding and abetting sexual apartheid. But something told me the McDonald's Corp. in Oak Brook, Ill., would have the answer.

So I called the McDonald's communications office this week and got Ann Rozenich. She checked around and called back to say: "All restaurants in Saudi Arabia, no matter what kind -- formal or quick service -- have two dining areas. McDonald's, like other quick-service restaurants -- for example, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King -- all have two designated areas: one for families and the other for singles, all males. The restaurants also have two separate entrances."

Rozenich said McDonald's, like other companies operating in Saudi Arabia, must respect and observe local customs. Which calls to mind an old 1940s lyric: "It seems to me that I have heard that song before, with that same old familiar score."

Ah, yes. South Africa.

Once upon a time, that country also had a longstanding official policy of strict segregation. As with Saudi Arabia today, South Africa maintained a system in which a huge segment of its society faced discrimination in all walks of life and was under the authority of men wielding power without any fear of being held accountable for their actions. The only difference: South Africa's victims were black; in Saudi Arabia, they're women.

As with Saudi Arabia, white-ruled South Africa viewed external criticism as a violation of its sovereignty and interference with its internal affairs. And U.S. corporations in South Africa, as with their Saudi Arabian counterparts, pleaded that they had no choice but to defer to the local "culture."

But something happened in apartheid South Africa.

In 1971, a Philadelphia Baptist preacher named Leon Sullivan joined the board of directors of General Motors, an investor in South Africa. Sullivan used his GM post to apply pressure on the racial apartheid system. He first lobbied GM to pull out of South Africa. Next, Sullivan drafted a set of workplace principles in 1977 that essentially required U.S. companies to practice corporate civil disobedience against apartheid. The first principle on the list: "Non-segregation of the races in all eating, comfort and work facilities."

Two years later, a dozen top U.S. corporations in South Africa had bought into the Sullivan principles, refusing to tolerate apartheid under their roofs. But that country's white minority government resisted broader demands to improve the quality of life for black South Africans, and to eliminate laws and customs that impede social, economic and political justice. So Sullivan led a divestment campaign. By 1979, more than 100 businesses had withdrawn from South Africa, other businesses were avoiding new ventures in the country, international banks were refusing to lend there, and universities and pension funds where withdrawing their investments.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The question is whether Americans are as concerned today about U.S. corporate support of gender apartheid in Saudi Arabia as the late Leon Sullivan and a host of others in the anti-apartheid movement were disturbed by the obedience of American businesses to racist apartheid policies in South Africa.

The Feminist Majority Foundation led the public outcry over the Taliban's human rights abuses against women and girls in Afghanistan. What do they and other opponents of gender discrimination think of the complicity of America's fast-food joints in Saudi Arabia? Or do American businesses, the golden arches, and American quick service purveyors of hamburgers, fries, pizzas and fried chicken in the Saudi kingdom get a free pass?


Sign on Pizza Hut door in Saudi Arabia reads: Unaccompanied Ladies Are Not Permitted.