The dean of the nursing college at Saudi Arabia's first women-only university resigned in protest to men teaching female students at her school, a local news website reported Wednesday.
Citing an unnamed administrative source, Barq News website said that Wafa al-Megrin, dean of the college of nursing at Princess Nora University (PNU), has resigned to protest the gender-mixing which she said contradicts the nature of the all-women university as well as the teachings of Sharia and social customs in the country.
“Please adhere to hijab. Mixing zone,” read a sign at the entrance of the college, according to a picture published by the website.
While the administration of PNU remained silent, the news sparked wide reactions on social media websites.
Conservative writer Abdullah al-Dawood started the hashtag “Thank you Wafa al-Mugrin” on Twitter, where many users expressed their appreciation for al-Megrin for standing up to defend their social values, even if that meant leaving her senior job.
“This is the real Saudi woman who has been ignored by the media,” a preacher named Khaled al-Saqbay tweeted, hinting to the lack of coverage of al-Mugrin's resignation in Saudi newspapers.
Rokaya al-Mohareb, an associate professor at PNU and a well-known female preacher, said she is sure that the women running the university will not allow any compromise in applying the strict gender segregation rules.
“Princess Nora University was founded for girls. The attempts to corrupt it with gender mixing is a major crime. Those who attempt this will get a strong reaction that will hurt them, because this is a stark assault on us,” she said via her Twitter account.
PNU is the largest women-only university in the world. It was founded in 1970 as Riyadh University for Women, and was renamed in 2008 after the sister of the country’s founder.
A new campus that spreads over 8 million square meters on the road to Riyadh airport was constructed in a record time of two years by 75,000 construction workers and was dedicated in May 2011. The vast campus, which includes an 11.5km automated metro, can accommodate 40,000 students and 12,000 employees.
While the university is supposed to be completely run by women, at least three of top posts are still occupied by men, according to information available on PNU website.
One of the three men, Mussaad al-Salman, is reportedly involved in the latest controversy that caused the resignation of the nursing school dean. Al-Salman is the university deputy rector for health affairs. He works in a separate building where he doesn’t mix with PNU’s female staff, but he supervises the healthcare colleges and the 200-bed university hospital.
According to Barq News, it was al-Salman who decided to allow male instructors to teach female students at PNU. The decision seems to have prompted Wafa al-Megrin to resign from her position as dean of the nursing college.
Saudi Arabia practices a strict interpretation of Islam and gender mixing in education and workplaces is highly discouraged. All Saudi schools remain segregated, with one notable exception: King Abdullah University for Science and Technology, opened in 2009 on the west coast of the country.
Gender segregation remains a contentious issue in the country, where the government has worked in recent years to push more women to join the workforce.
The unemployment rate among Saudi women is about 30 percent, according to government statistics. A 2010 study by global consultancy firm Booz and Co. found that close to 80 percent of unemployed women are university graduates.
The strong conservative backlash that followed the reports of gender mixing at PNU indicates the great challenges the government faces to implement their plans to encourage more women to join the job market.
One Twitter account under the name “Saudi society channel,” believed to be run by religious extremists, carried a threat to the minister of higher education.
“We swear by God we will not allow gender mixing, even if blood reaches the knees and skulls roll in the streets,” read one tweet posted by @ksa12300 on September 3, 2012.