Gender-Segregated Higher Education System: Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

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This article examines the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's gender-segregated higher education system and how it is used to transmit the Kingdom's traditional societal expectations to the employment sector. With Saudi Arabia's current need for economic change, the education system is retarding instead of accelerating reform. A background consisting of Saudi Arabian history, governing laws, religious beliefs and women's roles is examined. I then discuss the education system's preservation goal by considering segregation, women's mobility, videoconferencing courses, and the roles of professors. I attempt to explain how the current education system fails to prepare its students for the global economy: by limiting women's access to the labor market, and by not preparing men for the realities of the global market and therefore creating the need for migrant workers. In conclusion, conserving culture is significant, but for economic change to occur, the extent of cultural conservatism and its effect on the education system need to be re-evaluated. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a monarchy, headed by the Al Saud royal family, with a council of ministers. Saudi Arabia's strong roots in religious and tribal histories date back to the eighteenth century with the joining of the first Ibn Saud to Muhammad ben Abdel Wahab. Ibn Saud was the ruler of the town of Dariya in Najd (AlMunajjed, 1997). Muhammad ben Abdel Wahab was a religious fundamentalist reformer who changed the worship and social practices of Sunni Islam. He was viewed as a Mujaddid, a voice that is sent by God at the on-set of every century to remind Muslims to return to the true revelations of the Qur'an. Together, these two formed the religious movement called Wahabi (Cordesman, 2003)—also known as Salafi in the Arab world (Del Castillo, 2003)—which Saudi Arabia follows today. These two were unhappy with the decline of social virtues in the eighteenth century and wanted to bring back the ‘Golden Age of Islam,' an age of happiness in its simplicity and strict orthodoxy. They both attained this goal and “the union of ideology and military force led to the birth of a state: Saudi Arabia,” (AlMunajjed, 1997). In 1932, Abdel Aziz ben Saud consolidated the entire peninsula and proclaimed himself King of Saudi Arabia (Cordesman, 2003). Saudi Arabia was economically weak, yet militarily and politically strong. It was not until 1938 that oil was discovered and led to a major economic boom in the 1970s. With this boom came the construction of houses, schools, and universities. Consequently, tribal authority was weakened since labor needs increased in the cities, and many people had to move away from their traditional areas in order to work. Moreover, the new economy created an inflow of foreign workers who came to help develop the country (AlMunajjed, 1997). Presently, Saudi Arabia is one of the richest countries in the world and a major economic and political influence. Its status in the Islamic world is very strong and has also led to an increase in its participation in international relations. Being that it is the custodian of Meccah and Medinah, the two cities where Islam was born in the sixth century with the Prophet Muhammad and Islam's holy book, The Qur'an (AlMunajjed, 1997), Saudi Arabia is considered the keeper of the Islamic religion. With that title comes a great deal of responsibility including the preservation of the Muslim religion. As a means of preservation, Saudi Arabia has adopted the Qur'an and the Prophet's Hadith (written record of Muhammad's declarations) as its Basic Law of Government. It is based on equality in accordance with the Islamic Shari'a, or Islamic law. The State's role is to protect Islam and implement its Shari'a. The State will order its “people to do right and shun evil; it fulfils the duty regarding God's call,” (Jerichow, 1998). The State will protect human rights as accorded by the Shari'a. The history of the development of the Shari'a...
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