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Irresistible Force or Monstrous Regiment?

August 5, 2010

Here’s another piece from Career Advantage. It’s about women’s education in Saudi Arabia. I was in Riyadh this week, and the subject of what to do with the thousands of graduates returning from scholarships abroad came up in conversation more than once. Part of the problem with the Gulf in general is that many graduates expect jobs to be waiting for them in their fields of study. There was a recent story in the Bahrain press about four physical education graduates staging a sit-in in a goverment office because they took the view that they had their qualifications, and that the government should now find them jobs. Graduates from the West tend to take the more practical view that while they’re waiting to find a job in their chosen field, there’s no shame in taking up temporary jobs in MacDonalds, Starbucks et al. That mindset does not seem to have reached every graduate in the Gulf.

For women in Saudi Arabia, that route is a little more difficult, as temporary jobs for women are hard to come by, and the classic burger flipping option simply isn’t available because of social and religious norms forbidding physical proximity between men and women who are not related.

Here’s the piece:

“Driving into Riyadh the other day from King Khaled International Airport I saw an amazing sight. Not amazing to the casual observer who does the trip every day. But I normally visit the city by road, and it had been a couple of months since I’d last flown in.

On the right hand side of the highway that takes you into central Riyadh, there is now a massive construction site that must span several square miles. The steel frames of huge buildings, new roads, landscaping, a regiment of cranes, earthmoving equipment and hundreds of construction workers crawling all over the site.

In a land of soaring ambition and money to match, gargantuan construction projects are nothing new, especially in the capital. What was amazing to me was that this site had seemingly risen from nothing in the space of a couple of months.

Rising from the desert is the world’s largest university, Princess Noura bint Abdulrahman University. It’s been designed to accommodate 40,000 women. It will have its own 700-bed hospital, a monorail to get you between buildings, mosques, leisure centres, kindergartens and accommodation complexes. It will teach medicine, pharmacy, management, computer sciences and various languages, as well as translation, interpretation and domestic science. The project will cost approximately $12 billion – for British readers, that’s the equivalent of ten Wembley Stadia!

In the Middle East one becomes used to superlatives – the biggest, the highest, the most advanced. Usually they refer to ostentatious projects like the Burj Dubai, the world’s largest tower block (for now…). But superlatives applied to education are usually significant, and in Saudi Arabia, when applied to women’s education, they are even more significant.

This is a country where, according to recent research, 32% of women in employable age are in jobs, where there is substantial unemployment among the under-30s, and where there are in excess of 9 million foreign workers. So in this context, the development of Princess Noura University is a big statement of intent on the part of the government. It’s the latest step in an even bigger programme of women’s education. Last year Effat University for Women opened in Jeddah. The King Abdullah Scholarship Fund has for several years been sending thousands of women to study in western universities. It’s also a telling indication of the attitude of senior royals towards these projects that Princess Noura was the favourite sister of Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdulaziz, and Effat was the beloved wife of the late King Faisal, and a pioneer in women’s education in the Kingdom.

Set these facts against western perceptions of the Middle East fuelled by the media, politicians and the acts of radical Islamism – terrorism, burqas, and society’s attitude towards women – and you have an interesting contrast. Saudi Arabia is still a country with a wide spectrum of opinion on the role of women in society. On the conservative end of the scale, for example, there has been great resistance, particularly among the clergy, to the plans to allow men and women to work alongside each other at the showpiece King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which opened recently near Jeddah. Although these views probably reflect those of a minority of the population, nonetheless large sections of the community hold a deep and sincere conviction that the role of women should be confined to motherhood and family.

Such views can’t simply be swept aside by a reforming government. Saudi Arabia has succeeded in keeping its political equilibrium in the eighty-odd years since the Kingdom’s foundation by consensus and evolution rather than revolutionary change. King Abdullah is known as a reforming monarch. He is much loved and respected, and yet there are limits to what he can achieve without alienating elements within the Kingdom’s stakeholders: the royal family, the tribes, the business community and the highly influential body of clergy, the ulema.

So it seems to me that by the massive investment in women’s education, the King and his advisors are creating a groundswell. When these women graduate, and find themselves unable to get jobs suited to their newly acquired knowledge and skills (remember the current employment rate for women), will they apply irresistible force by pressuring their fathers, husbands and brothers to support reforms which will level the playing field for women in the workplace? Will employers, who hire millions of non-Saudis while struggling to meet mandatory quotas of Saudi employees, ignore the tens of thousands of bright, motivated and highly skilled women looking to enter the workplace?

As a classicist, I’m reminded of Lysistrata, the comedy written by Aristophanes two and a half thousand years ago. The women of Athens, fed up with the constant wars being fought by their men, calls upon all the women of Greece to withhold conjugal rights from their men until they stop fighting each other. After many comic attempts by the men to get the women to change their minds, Lysistrata succeeds, peace breaks out throughout Greece and marital harmony resumes!

I’m not suggesting that the women of Saudi Arabia would adopt such tactics, but perhaps an irresistible force is building to change the minds of those who think of women, as the preacher John Knox did in 16th century Scotland, as the “monstrous regiment”.

Steve Royston
May 2010″

Originally published in

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