Fastfood giants McDonald's and Pizza Hut and coffeehouse chain Starbucks have been slammed by a women's group for changing their store policies in deference to Saudi Arabian custom that dictates women should be separated from men.

Activists have long criticised the gender laws in Saudi Arabia, claiming that they situate women as second-class citizens. Women cannot legally drive, or obtain medical treatment, education or a job without the permission of a male relative. 

In a report prepared for next month's issue of the National Organisation for Women (NOW) Times, however, the franchise outlets of the US brands are revealed to have introduced gender-segregated seating and entrances. Starbucks has even altered its trademark mermaid logo, to avoid the suggestion that its portrayal of the female form is indecent.

Peter Maslen, president of Starbucks, said in a public statement: "As a guest in any country where we do business, we abstain from interference in local social, cultural and political matters."

Activists suggest however that a lack of interference amounts to a concern with profits over basic human rights, and Karen Johnson, executive VP of NOW, commented: "McDonald's and Starbucks claim to be sensitive to local customs and laws, but they choose to ignore universal human rights laws in favour of the laws of profit."

The report meanwhile praised the Dunkin' Donuts chain for reportedly refusing to institute segregation.