by Valentine Pasquesoone
Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah announced on September 25th that in 2015 women would have the right to vote and run in municipal elections. In a country where female citizens are not allowed to drive, it was an extraordinary moment to have the ruler say publicly, “We refuse to marginalize women in our society.”
But of course, the King’s pledge is disingenuous. Women’s “legal guardians” (their fathers and husbands) still decide whether women can travel, work, or even receive health care. According to the United Nations 2010 Human Development Report, Saudi Arabia is ranked 128th of 138 nations in terms of gender equality. While receiving the right to vote in four years is an important, symbolic step, women have a long way to go before there’s anything resembling gender equality.
Behind this long and impressive list of denied liberties, however, women have been making huge strides in one important field: higher education. Women’s growing access to universities could lay the foundation for women’s rights into the future as they push for more employment opportunities. “Any systematic effort that aims to improve women’s condition in a society has to focus on women’s education,” says Elham Manea, associate professor of political science at the University of Zurich.
Two years ago, the King appointed Noura al-Fayez the deputy education minister for women’s affairs. It was the first female minister in Saudi Arabia’s history, and it’s no coincidence that she’s the deputy education minister. A U.S.-educated former teacher, al-Fayez demonstrates King Abdullah’s willingness to tackle the women’s education seriously. “Things are getting better,” says Eman al-Nafjan, a blogger for Saudi Woman and a postgraduate student in Saudi Arabia. “The government is trying to educate as many people as possible.”
Women’s access to primary education has greatly improved over the last four decades. The female population’s literacy rate shot up during that time period from 2% to 78%, but rates of secondary and tertiary education for women in Saudi Arabia remained low until the 1980s. In only four years, from 1982 to 1986, the number of girls enrolled in secondary schools rose from 185,902 to 255,766. More women’s colleges—the first one was created in 1970—opened over the decade, and by 1990 women represented up to 47% of all Saudi undergraduates.
While women’s education has been, since 1960, a significant goal of Saudi governments, King Abdullah has focused on higher education. “King Abdullah’s reign is considered as the golden era for women’s higher education,” says Sabria Jawhar, columnist and former Jeddah bureau chief for the Saudi Gazette. “Since he assumed the thrown in 2005, he has made it very clear that he believes educating Saudi women is a top priority for him.”
So far, King Abdullah’s efforts are working. Women now account for 58% of all Saudi university students, and this rate is expected to increase. Saudi Arabia now has 300 women’s colleges in the Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia ranks 25th in the world in terms of women enrolled in universities, according to Jawhar. This September, classes started at the Princess Noura bint Abdulrahman University, the world’s largest women-only institution, able to hold up to 50,000 female students.
The government spent $5 billion in this exclusive state university for women, but fancy new buildings won’t be enough if the legislation is not reformed. “The current Saudi leadership has invested a considerable amount in the education sector,” says Manea. “The investment, however, did not change the systematic state’s discrimination against women enshrined in its laws.”
Princess Noura University may allow access to higher education for 50,000 Saudi women, but it will not improve gender-mixing. Al-Nafjan, 33, is currently pursuing a PhD in linguistics at King Saud University in Riyadh, and she has never interacted with her male professors. At King Saud University, every single one of her classes is taught through a live video feed. “The idea is that the teacher can’t see the women, but he can hear them,” she explains. “I have never met any men at King Saud. My male professors don’t know what I look like.”
In a controversial move, King Abdullah opened a university that does not follow this model. In 2009, he created Kaust University, the first entirely co-educational institution in the country. Admittedly, it only has 400 post-graduate science students, only 15% of them Saudi, but it’s a start.
In a religiously conservative country, higher education for women—and especially gender integrated classes—has raised tensions between the government and the Wahhabi religious establishment. Until 2002, women’s education was supervised by conservative clerics at the Department of Religious Guidance, and the influence of these clerics remains, as they try to undermine the King’s reforms. “Saudi executive leaderships have been less inclined to take positions that revealed outright rejection to women’s participation in the society,” says Manea. But progressive reforms for women, she says, “have never exceeded a certain boundary—the boundary set by the religious establishment.”
Indeed, a sparkling, new 50,000-student campus for women also won’t change the fact that women need permission from their legal guardians to register for classes. They aren’t allowed to study fields like engineering, aviation, or construction. Media studies was only recently made available for women, but only at an undergraduate level. They can study law, but not practice it. The list of limitations remains long, and not only because of the government’s decisions. Manea says that at the King Fahd Teaching Hospital in Al-Khobar, “females have not been admitted to programs in general surgery, orthopedic surgery, or pediatrics, due to faculty resistance.”
After graduation, finding a job can be difficult for well-educated women. In Saudi Arabia, women represent about 60% of all university graduates, but less than 15% of the country’s workforce. In 2008, about 27% of female university graduates were unemployed, a rate four times higher than for men. With a growing numbers of educated, unemployed women, the pressure could soon be on the King to end the gender segregation laws, which require men and women to work separately from each other, making it more difficult for companies to hire women. In a positive sign, the 2005 Labor Law doesn’t include a explicit guardian or separation clause, says Manea, but its article 149 does say women shall work only in fields “suitable to their nature.”
Many women say this will change as more and more educated women demand employment. Al-Nafjan is confident of the evolution. Her mother didn’t get an education, but al-Nafjan, along with many women her age, went to college, and she expects the future to bring the next generation even more opportunities.“The gap is going to be reduced," she says. "It’s natural. This is just going to happen."
Valentine Pasquesoone is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of HOK Network]