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Monday, January 7, 2013

Women in Saudi Universities

During our visit to Saudi Arabia, we have visited most of the prominent universities in the Kingdom (the greatest exceptions being Dammam University and Queen Noor University in Riyadh).  These have included male universities, female universities, and campuses that accommodate both.  The campuses that accept both males and females had two separate and identical campuses for each gender, except for Al Faisal University in Riyadh.  Women had access to near exact replicas of the buildings and facilities in the men’s sections.  The situation regarding mixed gender professors differed.  At some universities, men and women did not mix at all.  At others, there were one-way screens that allowed women to see their male professor, but the professor could not see his female students.  In schools with this set-up, like Prince Mohammad University in Dammam, women could not teach men.  Al Faisal University has taken the most progressive steps toward mixed gender education we saw.  The Al Faisal buildings each had four floors.  Floors 1 and 2 were for male students, and floors 3 and 4 were for female students.  The lecture halls were situated on the 2nd and 3rd floors so that teachers could see all of their students.  This construction allowed male and female students to even communicate with each other during class discussions.
A lecture hall at Al Faisal

King Faisal's Palace, in the center of Al Faisal Unviersity

A lot of these schools love symbolic motifs, Al Faisal has key holes

An example of a one-way screen in women's classes at some universities

The reaches of King Fahad campus

King Fahad Research Center
Among Saudis, it is firmly believed that men and women learn and think differently, so everyone I asked had an opinion on gender mixing in the classroom.  Some people, including the female faculty and staff at both Prince Mohammed University and Al Faisal and males at other universities believed it was important to learn with the opposite sex in order to see new perspectives on issues and prepare for potentially mixed workplaces.  However, some of the women studying at segregated campuses said that the differences in learning styles inhibited success in the classroom.  One girl at Prince Sultan University in Riyadh said that she would never want to learn in the same room as men because women tend to intuitively understand some concepts quicker and men slowed the process by asking too many questions.  I found few, however, that appreciated being only taught by one gender, or sitting in a room where the professor could not see them. 

Having spent all of this time in universities touring facilities, hearing from professors, and questioning students, I have of course developed my own opinions shaped by my own experiences and this trip.  I understand and sympathize with the argument that men and women learn differently.  Even in the US, where genderization is far less pronounced than in the Kingdom, I have seen that collectively, girls learn differently than boys, especially in the elementary and middle school years.  However, these differences are tempered and utilized once students reach high school and college.  In group discussions, especially in literature and political theory, I cannot imagine a well-rounded discussion that lacks representation from half of the world’s population.  (Maybe in more technical courses, this is less of an issue.)  Also, by competing for grades with female students, males will be forced to recognize intelligence and capability in women, the first step to granting equality in the workplace and society.  

In some areas, I completely appreciated gender-separate facilities, like within female gyms and swimming pools, but having entire campuses and staff duplicated is costing universities millions, and with all of the current development of the higher education sector and massive scholarship programs for students, universities should follow more sustainable models, like those I saw at Al Faisal.  King Al Saud in Riyadh and King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah seemed to have the largest separate facilities, with sprawling gardens and huge medical research facilities for each gender. 

The women of our own group have gotten more unwanted attention from men here than they would in the states.  The harassment was at its greatest in airports and low-end shopping districts, but it was also present on all-male sections of universities.  I remember some disconcerting stares at Prince Sultan University, and a few of us were even sung to while passing by male students at Prince Mohammad University as we crossed over to the female campus.  When we toured classes and saw men in a more professional setting, the ladies were clearly a novelty, but they were in no way disrespected.  At Al Faisal, however, the male students were models of respectability.  I even tried a few of the faces I’d learned at the airport to see if I could illicit a response—Nothing.  It was clear to me that the men of Al Faisal were the most prepared to work abroad or in a mixed gender setting in SA.  Unfortunately, we didn't have time to speak to any of the women studying at Al Faisal to get their take on the matter.

At our visits to one-gender schools, like King Fahad University of Petroleum and Minerals in Khobar and Dar Al Hekma in Jeddah, the experience was no different from a visit to an all male or all female school in the United States. 

Another important topic about gender and higher education is the availability of majors to each sex.  It is clear that Saudi society values gender roles and Saudi universities have taken small steps to alter conceptions of ability to perform a job based on gender (I’ll include my personal thoughts on this below).  While Saudi schools are at the cutting edge of education in medicine, engineering, and the hard sciences, women have, in many cases, been left out of this development.  On most of our visits, after praising their school’s international accreditation in the fields of sciences and all of the possibilities for engineering student job placement, the PR man would inform us of the great programs for women in interior design or child psychology.  (I can say that none of the American visitors shares the universities’ enthusiasm for either of these subjects after hearing that other majors are off-limits to women and that men couldn't pursue such fields either.)  Now I do not doubt that just about all of these women are perfectly happy with their selection of majors, and they’ll become fantastic new media specialists and designers, but it is unfortunate that they are not given the choice to study the same subjects as men.  There were some inspiring exceptions to this limitation, such as the women’s law program at Prince Mohammad University and the science departments at a few other schools. While some schools had great science and medicine programs offered to women, the added cost of separate facilities made this accomplishment seem hollow and unsustainable.

Now, this may seem a criticism of Saudi higher education, but all of these practices that seem so different from our own American values must be viewed in light of Saudi Arabia’s societal structure.  Saudi society has actually made major leaps in the past 20 years regarding women.  Changes can be viewed with every graduating class of women leaving their Saudi universities to go work, receive further education, or chose to begin family life.  University education for women is no longer just an appeasement process with no meaning; women graduating from Saudi schools are prepared to work anywhere in the world, except in many cases their own country.  The women of Dar Al Hekma, to which I would like to dedicate a post to later, are the best examples of educated and ambitious young Saudi women I have seen.  The Saudi system for girls is very different, but I could also see myself studying alongside them, building friendships and skills without romantic distractions.  I do believe greater balance is necessary in Saudi female life, and so I will also talk about the Saudi women’s chamber of commerce, the Al Sayedah Khadijah Bint Khawilid Business Centre, inshah allah once I get some free time.

I am thankful for the hospitality shown by the schools we toured and I expect to see greater accomplishments for Saudi women in higher education because their ambition and optimism is so limitless.  And with that, our plane is now landing in Riyadh for our final night in the KSA.

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About Your Author

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Troy, AL, United States
I am a Political Science student at Troy University in southeastern Alabama. I have been given fantastic opportunities to travel to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among other brief trips, to study and glimpse other cultures. I believe there is much to be learned about other people while studying, and I want to share my experiences with you.