Saudi Arabia Opens an All-Women University, But Will Women Find Work?
Almost Totally Excellent
Just a couple of weeks ago, the biggest women-only university opened its doors in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. When the Princess Nora bint AbdulRahman University was first announced, it vowed to provide the women of Saudi Arabia competitive education in science, technology, and other subjects that have been closed off to women in other universities that segregate them from men. And while this is a major step in the right direction, the downside is that while women make up more than half of the students in Saudi Arabia, they make up less than 15 percent of the workforce. Once these women graduate, will they even be able to have careers?
As we covered earlier this week, women aren’t even allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. And even if they aren’t driving, they need to be given permission by another man leave the house. What does this mean for the over 52,000 students at the world’s biggest women’s university? They are finally being offered the education they need to forge successful careers that would put them on par with men, and in a situation that is respectful to Muslim traditions. This is all excellent, and exactly what is needed to take steps in the direction of progress and equality. But if women are not even able to find work and are still being encouraged to not follow careers in favor of raising families (though some women can find a way to do both), how beneficial will the Princess Nora bint AbdulRahman University be for women who want to have lucrative careers (the women who do work are paid much less than their male counterparts) in Saudi Arabia, and will there be a massive “brain drain” when graduates will find it difficult to start their careers?
Nadya Khalife of Human Rights Watch says that despite the best efforts, it almost seems like achieving true equality is a dead end — at least as it stands right now.
“Ensuring women’s rights in Saudi Arabia is not about opening larger universities, it’s really about ensuring that women are allowed to study all fields and to be able to find future employment in these fields … The way in which Saudi Arabia segregates men and women in employment makes it very difficult for women to enter certain jobs. The Saudi government made promises, for instance, about ensuring that female lawyers, who are allowed to work only in administrative jobs, take up court cases, but there still has been no decision. While the opening of a large university is an indication of Saudi’s interest in educating women, it has to do much more to lift restriction on women’s employment.”
So yes, opening the world’s biggest university for women is a great step in the right direction for the women of Saudi Arabia. But if most of those women have to leave the country in order to pursue the careers for which they trained, then it’s truly a case of two steps forward, one step back. Unless these antediluvian restrictions can finally be lifted.
By the way, the university’s namesake, Princess Nora bint AbdulRahman al Saud, was the sister of the founder of Saudi Arabia who had a lot of influence over progress in the country, including promoting the use and nationwide installation of telephones, which Islamic purists thought was a “tool of the devil.” Maybe today’s traditionalists will look back to her as an example.
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