Educating Saudi Arabian Women
Creative approaches are making way for new opportunities.
At a time when we all have at least one ear tuned for the daily news from the Middle East, we may generalize and make assumptions based only on what we see, hear and read in the media. When approached recently to participate in the development of a curriculum for a new university in Saudi Arabia, it was easy to agree to the opportunity for independent discovery of the state of education for women in Saudi Arabia.
While there, some of the discoveries were expected and others were not. There are distinct cultural differences in the roles of women in the West and in Saudi Arabian society. The impression that women in that country are uneducated and without rights is not expressly true. Women of Islam held economic and social rights long before Western women attained those rights. It is true that Saudi women must wear the abayah and headscarf at all times when in public. Women from religious conservative families may be required to wear the burhka and gloves. They cannot drive, although they did until the 1990s. A Saudi woman must have the written permission of her "sponsor" to travel outside her home. This includes going to school, work or vacation. A woman's sponsor may be her father, brother or even her son. Within this culturally conservative environment the modern development of the country has brought increasing opportunities for women in education. Students—men or women—who meet entry criteria have access to higher education free of charge. The development of their system of higher education has occurred in the last half of the 20th century. Not too surprisingly they have discovered that there is a larger need than the current system can manage, thus the call for new universities.
The recent move to religious conservatism has raised barriers for women in education and employment. A program offered to both sexes must be taught separately. Thus, the Interior Architecture program we visited at King Faisal University (KFU) in Dammam was a program for women, taught by women, and offered in facilities that are completely separate. Courses that must be led by a male professor are taught utilizing a one-way mirror system with the students seeing the professor and the professor talking to his image. Classrooms offering these lectures have a separate entrance that has no interior access to the rest of the building. Not unlike a course taught via television here in the U.S. in concept, it does not allow the visual two-way interaction of our televised distance courses. It does allow students access to the information, but severely limits the kind of interactions possible in a traditional or distance learning classroom.
The curriculum at KFU was very similar to a standard FIDER-accredited program in the United States. Differences were most often regional. Not too surprisingly, the residential building standard in Saudi Arabia involves block and concrete construction with little
or no reference to our standard balloon framing. Students are extensively educated in the use of tile, stone and marble. They do require an internship, but due to religious restrictions, many young women have difficulty finding a meaningful experience.
Employment for women must also maintain physical separation of the sexes. An architecture firm wishing to employ a qualified Saudi woman as an interior designer must provide a completely separate working environment. This requires the investment of monies for additional space, equipment and support facilities for that female employee. No surprise then that many firms use the services of ex-patriate designers. Non-Saudi women may work in the same environment as men. The system is
educating women that have few opportunities for employment using their degree. The new universities and their leaders are aware of these hindrances and express an understanding of the disconnect between these educated, competent women and the opportunities for these young women to use their education in the same manner we enjoy. They do not voice any idea of when, or even how, this may change.
In the meantime, women are using their creative energies to find ways to get the professional experience necessary to make them competitive when change does comes. They are creating women-run firms that serve women clients. They are using their computer skills to work from home. Interior design suppliers are creating women-only retail environments that will use women as staff. "Where there is a will, there is a way" may be the unspoken mantra. The challenge in the creation of this new university will be to create a curriculum that provides the necessary theoretical, technical information and skills to function as a professional interior designer with an eye toward creative means of accessing real world employment experience.
Cindy Mohr is a professor in the School of Visual Arts at the University of North Texas. IDEC can be contacted at (317) 328-4437, fax: (317) 280-8527 or via www.idec.org. Send inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.