I recently received a phone call from one of my former students, a second-year student in the mathematics department at Al-Lith College for Girls of Umm Al-Qura University in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
I taught her English course at the same college last semester. She called to ask for the phone number of an associate professor of mathematics.
She was crying, complaining that the mathematics professor had given her a poor grade in his course.
She said that the female students had told the deputy dean for Educational Affairs that they wanted female lecturers rather than male ones, but there was no response.
They could not understand anything they were being taught by male staff lecturing from “studios,” small sound-proof rooms equipped with VEGA visualizers and microphones, a separation mandated by Saudi law, which is based on Sharia (or Islamic law). This was the second time she had failed the same subject, she told me.
Unfortunately, she’s not alone.
Last semester, 28 (out of 89) female students failed the writing course I was teaching – and I must point out that this number would have been doubled if I hadn’t, for the students’ sake, redistributed the grades on the questions of the exam. Unfortunately, however, many of the students who failed left their answer sheets nearly blank; there was no way to help them. In a phone call, one of those students said to me, “I’ll tell you something, but please take it easy: I don’t like that studio learning environment even if it will be confined to Arabic-language courses; last semester I enjoyed a writing course in a face-to-face learning environment, and passed it.”
Public separation of women and men is one of the most vexing issues facing Saudi colleges for girls. According to Article 155 of the Educational Policy of Saudi Arabia, mixing the sexes is forbidden at all levels of education, except in pre-school. For over 40 years, the “studio” system has torn nearly 22 universities apart. Only medical colleges and universities are exempted from this system. This has allowed women studying medicine to realize great success worldwide, according to a 2010 report on Saudi women’s achievements by the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education.
Sadly, the report said nothing about graduates specializing in non-medical subjects. For them, the detrimental effects of the studio system are far-reaching. A second- year female student in the English department told me in an email that her high school physics teacher used to lecture the class by reading from a textbook, saying that she herself didn’t understand some of what she was teaching, having received much of her physics education from a male professor in a separate studio; this lack of understanding even caused the teacher to skip many of the lessons in the book – it is also worth noting that almost all staff members of different departments of Al-Lith college, for example, are foreigners, which would denote that Saudi Arabia has no female students able to pursue their higher studies.
The most obvious problem with these studios is that they prevent male lecturers from interacting with their female students. As a lecturer of English, I cannot explain subjects such as phonetics (and, needless to say, nonverbal communication and gesture) to my students when they cannot see me. To differentiate between the two plosives “p” and “b,” I gave the students the example of an Arab asking an American, “Can I ‘bark’ here?” The American answered, “You can ‘bark’ wherever you like.” This joke on the mispronunciation of the word “park” – and its associated lesson on “p” and “b” sounds – fell flat without the students being able to see how my lips differentiated the two sounds. This has made some girls in the classroom says, “We need to see you to see how you pronounce them.”
It’s even worse for lecturers in the sciences. A physics professor at the college has told me that all his lectures are theoretical: He can never enter a laboratory with his female students.
Small daily difficulties and inefficiencies also accumulate. Professors can never truly check attendance.
A colleague of mine in the English department recalls once trying to do so and hearing the same voice answer every time he called a name.
I simply do not try: It’s impossible to check the presence of students I cannot see.
To be fair, each classroom is assigned a female monitor. Female monitors are to keep order and discipline in the classroom. But they do not offer much help. When present, they seem to turn the college into a kindergarten and stifle independent thinking. They induce the girls’ fears of being reported to the dean.
According to John Jensen, a clinical psychologist, threats make students less intelligent because mental and emotional energy gets lost. But so far as I can tell from the noise and inappropriate comments my students sometimes make, female monitors are often absent.
Male lecturers are also required to serve as makeshift technicians in order to teach, as the studios’ equipment often breaks down, and maintenance workers are two hours away.
Students complain that the VEGA visualizers’ LCD monitors, which display data, have gone to sleep during the lectures. Sometimes I can hear my students but they cannot hear me. Sometimes they can hear me but I cannot hear them.
The simple act of exchanging materials and assignments with female students or staff members becomes a tremendous burden.
Exchanges must be done through email, multimedia, SMS or by relying on a mediator, like the college keeper. The keeper frequently interrupts my lectures and materials like students’ term papers easily get lost.
To circumvent some of these problems, female students often send their male guardians (a brother, husband, father) to deliver assignments and other materials.
So what can be done? In the short term, I suggest equipping the educational studios with Internet access, which would help create a more interactive learning environment between male lecturers and their girl students. Furthermore, all girls’ colleges should have videoconferencing adopted, which allows male lecturers to be seen by their female students and colleagues.
In the next stage, for creating more interaction in the classroom, I suggest adopting another new type of videoconferencing which permits female students and male staff to see each other. This is permitted under Islamic law, as it is a necessity.
In the long term, one possible, though not ideal solution is to move to an all-female faculty body. Male professors are already minorities (nearly 35 percent) at these colleges and could easily be transferred to male educational institutions. As for me, I resigned because I couldn’t go along with this learning environment – moreover, as a PhD student at Lodz University, Poland, I had to travel to begin my doctoral program last September. As for other colleagues at the college, many of them have been fired by the university, as they have exceeded the maximum period (10 years) allowed for a foreigner to work in the kingdom – generally, there is a big breakdown in numbers of men versus women at the girls’ colleges. This would require a tremendous search for qualified female staff both locally and throughout Arab and European countries.
Encouragingly, the Al-Aflaaj College for Girls in Al-Aflaaj governorate has taken this step last year, recruiting 12 female lecturers from different Arab countries. Importantly, it is a step that might receive warm welcome from Saudi society, which held large protests last year after rumors circulated that Princess Nora bint Abdul Rahman University let male staff directly lecture female students and would invite some male staff members from the male colleges to teach at the girls’ colleges.
Still, women are slowly gaining new stature in Saudi society. Thirty were recently named to the Shura council and in 2015 women will be able to run and vote in municipal elections. Education is at the heart of training the next generation of female citizens and leaders. The best solution to the studio system is to exempt non-medical universities and colleges from the separation of women and men, just like medical institutions. Islamic law allows for such co-mingling in necessary cases.
Crucially, it is this jurisdictional rule that allows a Muslim to eat pork or drink alcohol, if he doesn’t find anything else to eat or drink.
Properly educating all females – not just those who want to be doctors – seems highly necessary to me.
The writer is an Egyptian artist, an affiliated member of Euroacademia, and a former lecturer at Al-Lith College for Girls, Mecca, Saudi Arabia.