King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has just inaugurated the world’s largest university for women, the Riyadh Women’s University. 40 000 women will be able to attend. This is an excellent move to support reforms already taking place within the country.
An impressive construction
As a construction project the Riyadh Women’s University is pretty impressive. Built over an area of 18 million square metres, at a cost of 8 billion euros it will have many features that would rank it as a small city rather than a simple university. It will host up to 40 000 students and 12 000 employees will work on the complex. The site will include not only the usual array of shops and services but also a museum, a theatre and an ultra-modern sports complex. The university will provide a nursery for young mothers and as well as a training hospital with 700 beds. There will even be a monorail to transport them around the 14 kilometres that separate the different buildings. And this massive project was completed in a mere 2 and a half years. (Education ministers in the Western world stop dreaming; that’s never going to happen in your country).
The principle role of university
This is a fantastic achievement. The problem comes when we begin defining the very purpose of such institutions. Essentially, universities and higher education institutions have two main roles. One is to train people so that they make an active contribution to society and provide for themselves and their families through work. This is the instrumental part of education. The other is to open people’s minds to new idea and to challenge the exiting order. This is the integrative side to learning. Given the current position of women in Saudi Arabia, exactly which one of these objectives will the Riyadh Women’s University be trying to achieve?
Integrative motivation and the opening of minds
Integrative learning and the opening of minds through exposure to new ideas and free and open debates has been one of the fundamental roles of learning since the birth of formal education itself. Granted the Saudi government is clearly committed to educating its citizens. It spends 30 million euros a year or 40% of its entire budget on education. And women already make up nearly 60% of higher education graduates. But from there on they are clearly second class citizens. All women are required to have a guardian regardless of their age. His consent must be sought for practically all major decision such as marriage, divorce, education, opening a bank account and surgery. Forbidden to drive a car (though curiously they may fly a plane!) and discouraged from using taxis or public transport, even minor travels around their home town become a hassle. Admittedly, a few places are reserved for women at the rear sections of trains and buses to allow them some limited movement. Hmm? “Back of the bus.” Does that sound familiar? Not surprisingly, The World Economic Forum 2009 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Saudi Arabia 131th out of 134 countries for gender parity. One wonders who the other 3 countries were.
Training to Work
Let’s consider the instrumental side of learning i.e. training people to find paid employment. Is the regime trying to encourage more women to work? It would not be difficult to get fewer. Laws requiring a guardian’s permission to work were finally repealed just 3 years ago, but currently less than 10% of Saudi women have active employment in companies (though it is said that many work from home). This is a paltry figure even compared to other surrounding Muslim nations such as the UAE, Kuwait or Malaysia where rates are way over 40%. However, it is hardly surprising. From a young age, girls are taught that their primary role is to look after their families and the household. Those few women that do wish to brave the job market then find that companies are then discouraged from employing them. Obstacles include provision of distinct entrances to their premises for men and women and, by law, physically and visually separate sections for the sexes at all meetings.
To be fair on King Abdullah he has tried to make some moderate reforms. In 2009 he took on the ultra-conservative factions of his own government by opening the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, (KAUST). This became the country’s first mixed sex university. However, as in all other public places, women have to study in separate parts of the building from the men. They follow their classes through the use of close circuit television and live broadcasts. This is not exactly a practical way to engage in active learning.
Universities serving their purpose
Such gigantic constructions should therefore be praised only if they are coupled with social reform in Saudi Arabia. Clearly, King Abdullah is moving in this direction and should be commended for his efforts. If he succeeds then the Raman’s Women University will be able to accomplish its role to the full. It will allow its students to open their mind and make an active professional contribution to society if they so wish. If he does not succeed, then its students will gain professional skills that they will never be allowed to use and may even be given thoughts of equality that they should never be allowed to think.
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Shannon A Thompson: “T.L. McCown, author and instructor at Columbia College, is STILL the only author to write about the Saudi Royal Family from first-hand experience. Her two novels–Shifting Sands: Life in Arabia with a Saudi Princess & Creating Shamsiyah: Staging the Saudi Feminist Movement–are inspiring, challenging, and a vivid collection of culture in Saudi Arabia.
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