Education in Saudi Arabia used to be strictly segregated along gender lines. That’s all changed with the opening last month of the kingdom’s first co-ed university—the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). Not only will women be able to study and work alongside men, they won’t be required to wear veils and will be permitted to drive cars—both serious no-nos for all other Saudi women.
It’s a bold move in Saudi Arabia, where the status of women has often been described as akin to apartheid. KAUST exists outside the education ministry—it’s run by Aramco, the state oil company, which invested $10 billion in its construction. The university is part of King Abdullah’s plan to diversify the Saudi economy beyond oil, and to create new opportunities for the large Saudi youth population (more than half of the population is under 25). To do this, KAUST could be considered a trial balloon to expand women’s education.
In 2007, King Abdullah appointed the first female deputy minister for girls’ education, thereby prioritizing women’s education while also confirming segregated learning. Moreover, while Saudi Arabia has more female post-secondary graduates than men, the former represent just 15 per cent of the workforce, and over 85 per cent of working women have jobs in education.
Victories come slowly for Saudi women. Earlier this year, for example, they campaigned unsuccessfully for the right to buy undergarments from female staff in stores. Participation in athletics is also frowned upon: one cleric told the Saudi Gazette that it would lead to a loss of virginity, while a scholar suggested it would spark an increase in lesbian desires.
Don’t expect the pace of progress to pick up soon: just 15 per cent of students currently enrolled at KAUST are women.