Saudi Arabia university for women
Kamran Jebreili/AP

University for Women Is Next Step in Saudi Arabia’s Reform

October 30, 2008 02:40 PM
by Rachel Balik
King Abdullah hopes that a women’s university will help get women into the job market, which is part of his larger plan for modernization.

Construction Begins on Saudi University for Women

After a long history of adhering to religious convention in matters of women’s rights, Saudi Arabia will begin construction on the first women-only university, which the government hopes will increase the presence of women in the job market.

The Princess Noura Bint Abdelrahman University for Girls will offer subjects not available to women at co-educational universities. At those schools, classes are often segregated by gender and as a result, many fields of study are only available to men, Reuters says. King Abdullah’s decision to begin construction is part of a larger plan for reform that will modernize the country. He is making concerted efforts to increase the number of women in the workplace.

Background: King Abdullah and reform

When Abdullah finally came to power in 2005, BusinessWeek reported a climate of optimism surrounding the changes he might offer. He made it clear that he would take more drastic measures to reform the country, including improving relations with Israel, bolstering the economy and lessening religious control over women’s freedoms.

Still, the country’s attitudes toward women are largely dictated by Sharia, the legal system outlined in the Quran. Arabic governments apply the laws in different ways, but most of the strict limits of women’s rights stem from these practices. Some of the laws also apply to finance and banking, but each of the statutes is secular in nature. Sharia must be included in a modern country’s legal system via the constitution, national laws, or sub-national laws, the Council on Foreign Relations explains.

But as Saudi Arabia has increased its reform efforts, greater leniency in enforcing these laws has ensued. Recently, strict regulations prohibiting female drivers have been tapering. The conservative opinion remains that if women were allowed to drive, they would be exposed to interactions with the opposite sex, and thus risk immoral behavior. But when a 20-year-old Saudi woman drove her father and brother to the hospital after they suffered burns, she was praised by newspapers, not condemned.

Related Topic: Oil prices

In order to compete in the modern global market, Saudi leaders believe that Saudi Arabia will need to become a modern country, making reform a top priority. And as oil prices fall, the incentive for the country to flourish internally is greater than ever. Arab News reports that oil prices have been declining and the Saudi stock market has suffered along with the world economy.

King Abdullah’s plan to increase the number of women who can work profitable jobs may be one way to keep the country afloat and help it shift into the modern era.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines