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October 31st, 2008
Saudi Arabia's First Women's University

Rawan Jabaji

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has announced plans to build the first women-only university in the kingdom, and vows that it will be the largest women’s university in the world.

This is a bold move by the king, who has frequently struggled against Saudi Arabia’s powerful religious establishment to educate women in the kingdom and integrate them in the workplace. Until now, women have had limited access to higher education in restricted women’s sections of Saudi universities where they are only permitted to study certain subjects. Saudi women still can’t drive, vote or be caught in public without their spouse or a male relative.

I spent a number of my childhood years in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in the 80s and 90s due to my father’s work, but I always commuted back and forth between school in upstate New York and summers in the kingdom with my family. My cousin lived in Riyadh and attended a public high school up through her senior year.

When my cousin completed high school, she visited King Faisal University, one of the many public colleges in the kingdom, which has both male and female sections. She described the scene for me. At the university, women are segregated from their male peers, and even their professors. In the classroom, women sit at desks surrounded by wood panels on either side. Professors lecture from remote locations and the women listen through a TV screen. And if a female student has a question during class, she alerts the professor by pressing a button below her TV screen and addressing the professor through a microphone.

Saudi men often study abroad if they can afford tuition and maneuver getting a student visa.  It’s considered more prestigious to study outside the country, so if they can’t go to the United States or Europe to study, Saudi men enroll in universities in the Middle East instead of staying in the kingdom.

It’s another story for women.

Women who wish to continue their education beyond high school are often persuaded to stay within the kingdom’s reigns, as it isn’t customary for women to leave their home before marriage. And if a woman does leave, she must be accompanied by her spouse or a male relative.  Women experienced university studies in Saudi Arabia as they experience much of life in the kingdom — behind the veil. However this new initiative by King Abdullah may be one of many nascent steps to reform, and possibly indicative of relaxing social norms in the conservative kingdom.

Princess Noura Bint Abdulrahman University for Girls, set to be completed in 2010, will allow women to study medicine, pharmacy, management, computer sciences and various languages—subjects that women have difficulty studying in the gender-segregated public universities in Saudi Arabia. University president Princess Al-Jowhara Bint Fahd said that the university is designed to become the world’s largest center of higher learning for women.

We want to make it a leading international institution,” said Princess Al-Jowhara.

This is a milestone in the kingdom’s history, particularly in the history of women’s education,” said Ibrahim Al Assaf, Minister of Finance. “The campus would include an administration building, a central library, conference centers, buildings for 15 academic faculties, several laboratories and a 700-bed hospital equipped with state-of-the-art facilities.”

The university will be built on the eastern suburbs of Riyadh, with the capacity to enroll about 40,000 female students.The environmentally friendly university will include a high-tech transport system with automatic and computer-controlled vehicles linking all important facilities at the university. The campus will also include housing for university staff, mosques, a kindergarten and an exclusive amusement center for families and students.

And the price tag on the women’s university will be approximately $5 billion USD.

“The king’s presence here shows his generous support for women empowerment in Saudi Arabia and his keen desire to promote higher education,” said Khaled Al-Anqari, the Minister of Higher Education.

In 2004, Wide Angle visited Saudi Arabia in The Saudi Question. The film includes an interview with Senator Joe Biden, then the ranking Democrat on the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

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