Foreign Policy Blogs

First comes sex integration, next comes …

Saudi Arabia has opened a university where both women and men are allowed to attend and mix together.

It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it certainly is. Social attitudes in the conservative kingdom are some of the most repressive in the world, and women’s rights are few and far between. Women will be allowed to drive on campus, and religious police will not be present. Furthermore, women are not required to veil on campus—though they certainly can choose to veil if desired.

This can only bring good news for the land ruled by the House of Saud. Its modernizing efforts have been slow going, but it would seem prudent to allow a slow, gradual change to moderate the country’s attitudes towards domestic and gender relations. Yes, only fifteen percent of enrollment are women—but that is worlds better than zero.

Social attitudes don’t change overnight, and especially not in Saudi Arabia—they take generations of slow, steady movement towards desired goals. The cautious approach adopted by the Saudis isn’t going to liberate women in the Arabian peninsula overnight. The West should be intensely wary of pushing countries—where the traditions and shared histories and struggles of the West are inherently foreign— to rapidly emulate Western societies. The Saudi method will go a lot farther to enacting real and lasting change than a widespread, overreaching reform program.

*Update: As Peter Burgess notes in the comments, “Saudi medical schools are and have been sexually integrated for over 20 years. This made sense to Saudi society as they could not imagine that there would be equal numbers of male and female doctors available to treat both sexes.”

I was unaware of this fact. However, that a senior cleric was sacked over critical comments regarding the King Abulldah University of Science and Technology shows that this institution is still controversial inside the country, and pushing the envelope for some of the more conservative Saudi Islamists.



Andrew Swift

Andrew Swift is a graduate of the University of Iowa, with a degree in History and Political Science. Long a student of international affairs, he is on an unending quest to understand the world better.

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