In Saudi Arabia, my home country, the issue of women’s education has been awash with controversy akin to the other women rights issues. The divide pits influential conservative religious leaders on one end and the government on the other. The problem as raised by the conservative leaders is a misguided one veiled by claims of religious standing but reeking of traditionalist sentiments. Saudi Arabia like many other societies is patriarchal. It is from this societal perspective that conservatives argue that women education is ungodly as it opens a window to westernization.
As a nation, Saudi Arabia’s literacy levels pales in contrast with its Middle East counterparts. One of my nation’s founding fathers, King Faisal, sought to change this in the 1960’s by encouraging the establishment of formal public schooling. My mother tells me of her learning experience which consisted of lessons on good motherhood based on Quaranic principles. Because of pressure from traditional conservatives, it was not deemed fit for women to learn secular subjects like science, languages and liberal arts. Through a body that oversaw girls’ education, it was their opinion that women could only be taught religious subjects that centered on how women could be good mothers and wives. Nursing and teaching was as far as the curriculum could cover, as these disciplines were deemed suitable for women’s role in the society. King Faisal and his wife Iffat championed for women’s cause through notable ways such as establishing a girls school the house of affection, decreeing that education for girls was mandatory, making education free and explaining to the people that education for girls was not against Islamic principles.
A particular inspiration for me is the story of a local heroine, Fatima Amin Shakir, an exceptional young woman who petitioned King Faisal after she was denied the opportunity to go to study abroad by the Ministry of Higher Education. This was in the 1940’s when boys were being sent for scholarships abroad. It was unfathomable then for a young woman to go study abroad alone. Today, she remains among the first women to hold a PhD a commendable feat thanks to Faisal and the efforts of her father. I was too was lucky enough to gain the support of my family as my father flew to Bahrain to enable my achievement of a superior education and to allow me thrive in a community that offered equal opportunities to both sexes. A deep concern for me has been the denial of opportunities for women in Saudi Arabia because of societal and family inhibitions.
Segregation is part of Saudi Arabia’s culture that tears through all sectors including education and employment opportunities. Traditional beliefs championed by conservative religious leaders agitate for women to be always in the company of male relatives as it is thought that women may be corrupted by making friends with males who are strangers. This is festered on the societal view that women should occupy a position that is complimentary but does not challenge the male position. Initially when women education was at its infancy, concerns were raised about the suitability of educated women as marriage partners. A survey did then reveals that up to seventy percent of educated males did not consider educated women as suitable wives. Such concerns are still rife as it takes up to twelve years in elementary schooling before qualifying for a place in an institution of higher learning. In addition, some tribes still marry off their daughters early, denying them a chance of education and the drop out levels keep raising.
In Bahrain, I was able to access public libraries enabling development of my research skills. This was possible due to the lack of societal segregation. The quality of education was at par with my male counterparts as the tutors were uniform across the board. In a case that reminds us of the plight of Fatima Shakir, the girl student in Saudi Arabia still faces such unjust situations such as denial of such basic requirements pivotal in her education. Some subjects such as physical education, petroleum studies, Islamic banking and training as judges are out of reach for women in Saudi Arabia providing a perfect example of the proverbial ‘glass ceiling’. It is said that educating a woman educates the whole community. This cannot be further from the truth as the economic benefits would be tremendous keeping in mind the low literacy levels in my home country. As the situation stands, an alarming forty percent of Saudi’s finish their education before secondary school level leading to disparity in the labor market thus creating a void that is filled by migrant workers.
The fight for education rights has been long and punctuated by unfortunate events such as the elementary fire in a girls school in Mecca where fifteen lives were lost as religious police prevented firemen from entering a the school as they feared the girls may not be wearing their veils. They serve as constant reminders of the debt that I owe Saudi women giving me a sense of duty. The public outcry that followed the incidence shed light on the dire situation but as King Faisal noted force cannot be used to shift perspectives from traditional views to realizing that education of the girl child is not only a God given right but a just and sensible deed to do for Saudi Arabia. The only way is to by following his example and facilitating the education of the girl child in Saudi Arabia. It is such examples that will enable society slowly turn the corner.
The plight of these women and the gallant efforts of the government encourage me to endeavor in my studies to contribute to this just goal. It is my hope that I too may serve as an inspiration and add my voice to the continuing advocacy for women education rights as Fatima Shakir or Thoraya Obaid, the first Saudi Arabian executive director of the United Nations Population fund.