Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Education and Women in Saudi Arabia

Dr. Mozammel Haque

History was made recently in Saudi Arabia throughany changes that took place. For the first time in the history of the country, a Saudi woman is appointed as deputy minister. While reshuffling the Kingdom’s Cabinet, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia appointed a Saudi woman, Nora bint Abdullah Al-Fayez, as the deputy education minister for girls’ affairs.
First Saudi Woman Minister
Al-Fayez began her career as a schoolteacher in 1982 working her way up to become in 2001 the director general of the women’s section at the Institute of Public Administration. Her long experience in the educational sector and her husband’s encouragement and support paved the way for her to reach this position.
Nora bint Abdullah Al-Fayez has been serving as director general of the women’s section of the Institute of Public Administration since 1993. She completed her master’s degree in educational techniques from Utah State University in 1982 and bachelor’s degree in social science from King Saud University in 1978.
Accepting the new position, Al-Fayez told Arab News, “This is an honor not only for me, but for all Saudi women. In the presence of a comprehensive operational team, I believe I’ll be able to face challenges and create positive change.”
Commenting on the historic appointment, Ali Al-Twati, a Saudi academic and writer, said having a woman occupy the position of deputy minister is a must. “It is compulsory, not optional, to have women occupy leadership positions. Since the number of schools in Saudi Arabia exceeds 10,000, girls need a reference in the ministry to listen to their issues and understand them,” said Al-Twati.
He also said that segregation makes it easier for women in the Kingdom to reach high leadership positions. There are more women in key positions in the country than in developed countries, he added.
Haifa Jamal Al-Lail, dean of Effat College, expressed her delight, adding that the appointment serves as an impetus for women to get into leading positions to contribute to the development of Saudi society.
“This is not just about having the first woman deputy minister. It’s about having more women in important positions. Al-Fayez’s presence in the Ministry of Education will make women’s voices heard,” said Al-Lail.
Despite optimism for a better future, Khaled Al-Radihan, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at King Saud University in Riyadh, said it would not be easy. “There is a conservative stream of people who won’t accept the situation easily. If the deputy minister proves herself and succeeds, then things might take a different turn. However, it’s a positive change and a good opportunity for a better future,” said Al-Radihan.
Asma Siddiki, Associate Dean for Development at the Dubai School of Government, congratulated Al-Fayez, describing her appointment as a milestone for women in Saudi Arabia.
“Our government is to be commended for recognizing women’s achievements. Given the remarkable progress women are making in the Kingdom, and the investment the government is making in education, I don’t doubt there’ll be many such senior appointments in the future,” said Siddiki.

The Jeddah-based English daily, Arab News, commented editorially on 15 February, 2009, “The Saudi government reshuffle announced yesterday is not just a changing of the guard — new faces replacing old with policies remaining the same. It is a clear sign of major transformation in the Kingdom.
“Most eyes, certainly abroad, will be on the appointment of the country’s first woman minister, Nora Al-Fayez, who takes over as deputy minister for women’s education. An exciting development, it shows the commitment of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah to empower women in society and bring them into the decision-making process. There may be some who are uncomfortable with that,” observed the editorial.
The editorial continued, “They have no reason to be. Saudi women have the same beliefs and values as Saudi men. They are just as capable of standing up for the country’s traditions as men. They are just as well educated as men — indeed in many cases, better — and they have much to contribute to the Kingdom’s future. The appointment is a guide to how Saudi Arabia is evolving.
It should be seen in the same light as that of Fatimah Al-Saleem, the new cultural attaché at the Saudi Embassy in Ottawa — another “first” for a Saudi woman. Both appointments are steps in a process that, one day, will see women heading major ministries and women ambassadors. The Kingdom is reforming, albeit at a pace society can cope with.”
Samar Fatany, a Saudi Radio Journalist, observed in the Arab News, “The appointment of Nora bint Abdullah Al-Fayez, the first woman as deputy education minister, is also a positive development. Women across the Kingdom are celebrating the fact that finally the ban has been lifted on women taking leading posts as decision-makers. For many years, the policy of excluding women and marginalizing their role was one of the major issues that kept the society behind and frustrated many educated and qualified Saudi women who represent 50 percent of the population. This negative policy also has projected a distorted image of Saudi and Muslim women across the globe.”
“Nevertheless, lifting the ban on the employment of women in leadership positions is still a good start that may open the door for more positions to follow. The bold and brave decision to implement major judicial and educational reforms and the appointment of forward-thinking officials has restored public confidence and demonstrated King Abdullah’s will to lead his country to a more prosperous future,” Fatany observed.
Sabria S. Jawhar writing in the Saudi Gazette, Jeddah, observed, “Al-Fayez and her colleagues in the Ministry of Education are faced with the monumental task of bringing Saudi education to a global standard. At the moment nearly 90 percent of the students are receiving an education in Saudi Arabia’s 25,000 public schools.”
Fawziah Al-Bakr, a professor of education at King Saud University reported recently that as much as 75 percent of the curriculum is studies in religion. Studies in math and science, not to mention studies of other cultures, are not a priority.
And Prince Faisal Bin Abdullah told a group of ministers recently that, “We need more efforts in strengthening Saudi Arabia’s position by building brains and investing in humans.”

7.5-billion-riyal campus for women
Saudi Arabia’s education is going through an important phase in its history as a result of the reforms introduced by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah, to improve the country’s educational standard matching with its position in the comity of nations, the new education minister said.

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah launched eight new educational and welfare projects worth more than SR14 billion at King Saud University (KSU), including a 7.5-billion-riyal campus for women, a SR1.8-billion medical city and a SR1.2-billion housing project.
The King Abdullah Project for the Development of Public Education has allocated SR4.2 billion to improve the educational environment and SR3.58 billion for extra-curricular activities. The training and development of teachers is another thrust of the project and for this purpose SR2.94 billion has been set aside. A curriculum development program will receive SR980 million. Academics and other experts are working on the project’s executive plan, which will be ready shortly.
Speaking to top officials at the ministry, Prince Faisal bin Abdullah, who was recently sworn in as the Minister of Education, said no compromise and negligence would be tolerated in the education sector. “We need more efforts in strengthening Saudi Arabia’s position by building brains and investing in humans,” the Saudi Press Agency quoted the Minister as saying.
Speaking about educational reforms, he said King Abdullah has allocated SR9 billion for a new general education development project, which is named after the king. “This project is being supported by Saudi and foreign experts,” he added.
7,200 women to be given Education ministry jobs
The Ministry of Education plans to provide women 7,200 administrative jobs in Girls’ Education at the ministry headquarters and 41 education departments across the country, a ministry source said. Nearly 70 percent of administrative jobs in Girls’ Education are already held by women. The Cabinet also approved measures to increase jobs for women. In the recent Cabinet reshuffle, Norah Al-Faiz was appointed as deputy minister for Girls’ Education. She is the first woman in Saudi Arabia to hold a ministerial post.

Two Smart Schools in Madinah
Another development that took place in the field of education is an agreement signed on 7th of March 2009 between The Knowledge Economic City (KEC) in Madinah with Al-Andalus Private Schools to build two smart schools in the new city. The two schools, one for boys and the other for girls, will be built on separate plots of land covering an area of 50,000 square meters. The schools will provide education to students from the kindergarten up to the 12th grade. “With an investment of around SR150 million, the schools will provide e-learning and the use of the latest technology to enhance the learning experience,” the owner of Al-Andalus Private Schools, Abdulghani El-Khereiji, said.
He said Al-Andalus Smart Schools would benefit from KEC’s modern infrastructure that will facilitate the speedy delivery of information and the optimum application of technology.
Chief executive officer of the KEC, Tahir Mohammed Bawazir, said the development of Al-Andalus Smart School “is a significant first step” toward the educational reforms introduced by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah. “The KEC in Madinah is the new home of knowledge-based industries and Al-Andalus School will benefit tremendously from this location to lay the foundation for preparing our youth for a knowledge-based economy,” he said.
The Knowledge Economic City Company recently completed the design for its smart IT network infrastructure in conjunction with Cisco Systems and has also developed a study on the proposed smart services that will be provided there.
Integration of Saudi women into workplace
In the past three years, there have been fast changes in economy, the integration of women into the workplace, support for women’s issues. The Ministry of Commerce has opened up all fields for women to do business in. Women are said to be having nearly SR45 billion in banks in the Kingdom, more than half of it lying idle. Women can now participate and get license in all fields that are open to men. Many Saudi women are now directly involved in business. There are such Saudi women like Dr. Basmah Mosleh Omair, Chief Executive Officer of the Sayeda Khadijah Bint Khuwailid Center for Businesswomen at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI), Princess Loulwa Al-Faisal, daughter of late King Faisal, who has either led or been a member of several businesswomen’s delegations abroad, Princess Mashael Bint Faisal Bin Turki Bin Abdul Aziz, president of the Business Women’s Forum of the Eastern Province, and one who is responsible for the establishment of the Gulf Businesswomen’s Committee (GBC), Dr. Lama Abdulaziz Al-Sulaiman, elected JCCI board member and Madawi Abdullah Al-Hassoun, JCCI board member, who has been in business for more than two decades
“Things are moving pretty quickly in Saudi Arabia. It is a booming economy although there is an economic crisis in the world but we are not affected here. Women are now more aware that they have to get involved early on into these investments and they now have the choice. What we have done is given them opportunities and removed as many obstacles as we could to give them the choice and opportunity to participate in the sector they like,” said Omair.
Madawi Abdullah Al-Hassoun, JCCI board member, who has been in business for more than two decades, said, “Most of us are highly educated. We have proved ourselves in many sectors, internationally. We have gained recognition from the government, the society that we are capable of shouldering responsibilities.”
“We have seen more changes as far as women’s workplace is concerned. Now there is nothing in the labour law that says men and women cannot mix in the work place. All it says is that we should work within the Shari’ah, which is fine. So now there is more integration of women in the private sector,” Omair said of the achievements coming out as a result of the recommendations.
Dr. Basmah Mosleh Omair, Chief Executive Officer of the Sayeda Khadijah Bint Khuwailid Center for Businesswomen at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI), the first women’s forum of its kind formed last year.

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