Saudi Arabia has opened the world’s largest university for women, the Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University. The new university is located on the outskirts of the Saudi capital of Riyadh and has the capacity for 55,000 students to study subjects including business and science. It also has its own teaching hospital, laboratories and libraries.
All very good but, as the Guardian observes, how many of those women who graduate will actually be able to work and use the skills they’ve learned, given that Saudi Arabia has the world’ strictest sex-segregation rules? Currently women, many of whom are well-educated, comprise only 15% of the workforce. The 2010 World Economic Forum global gender gap report in 2010 ranked Saudi Arabia 129 out of 134 countries and gave the country a zero for female political empowerment.
Currently women cannot vote and must live under the control of a male guardian, usually a father or husband. They cannot get a job, travel or open a bank account with their guardian’s authority. They also cannot leave the house unattended or without wearing the niqab and cannot drive.
The Guardian quotes Nadya Khalife, from Human Rights Watch, about the new Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University:
“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,” says Khalife. “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.”
Two weeks ago, 32-year-old Manal al-Sharif, challenged the ban on women driving by videotaping herself driving and calling, via Facebook and other social media sites, for a “mass drive” of women on June 17th. An information technology specialist with the state-run oil company Aramco, Al-Sharif was arrested and imprisoned first for five days, and now for 10 more.
Al-Sharif is educated and used her knowledge of technology to start a protest, only to be immediately quashed down. But her driving a car and her call for a “mass drive” (the original page was taken down but there is a replica of the Facebook event page) — calls for Saudi women to have more freedoms that have been heard about the world — are examples of what can happen when women are, yes, educated.
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