I read an editorial written by [Editor-in-Chief of al-Riyadh newspaper] Mr. Turki al-Sudairi on Wednesday in which he discusses the objections raised by a member of the Saudi Supreme Committee of Islamic Scholars about co-education [at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology]. This issue of permitting co-education is further complicated by the fact that Saudi Arabia is the only country in the Islamic world that completely forbids co-education from childhood to adulthood. It seems to me that the reason for this is a determination to entrench ourselves in a position that we refuse to discuss, such as allowing women to drive cars, which is also something only seen in Saudi Arabia. If only the principle [being used in this instance] was the same principle that allowed television to become the most commonly used method by religious clerics to communicate with the public, whereas previously television was something rejected by them.
Those familiar with the history of Saudi Arabia recognizes the tribal dimensions of Saudi society and its gradual transformation [and modernization]. In some cases this change was imposed from above such as when the government opened schools for girls, despite strong objectives to this at the time.
The point raised by Mr. Turki al-Sudairi is a good one, in that using the excuse of Saudi society's Islamic nature is not consistent in this case, as [the population of] Saudi Arabia represents only five percent of that of the Islamic world, whilst the rest of the Islamic world permits women to do many things that are not permitted in Saudi Arabia.
I previously visited the Islamic University in Malaysia, which views Saudi Arabia as an example and is proud of its achievements. However here I saw them implement a co-educational system in all classes but not in the university’s cafeteria, as the students ate in the same cafeteria but with segregated seating. The Islamic University in Malaysia is no ordinary university but a university that specializes in Islamic studies taught by Muslim scholars.
We are all acutely aware that all of these unjustified restrictions will change in the future, in the same way that [the view on] education for girls, the telephone, radio, and television changed. So why is there this insistence on slowing down these changes and holding back society from what it can achieve today?
The huge number of female graduates who are unable to find jobs because of these restrictions necessitates that we review the logic behind such restrictions and research legitimate ways to move beyond this.
My feeling is that there is no conviction in these restrictions, and they are being rejected for rejection’s sake, due to doubts in the intentions [behind these changes], and unjustified fears that our enemies want us to open up our society, as this will cause its destruction. Even if such thinking is true, I believe this is a good thing, because the disagreement is not with regards to the fundamentals [of the issue], but with regards to the intentions behind it. Such disagreements require dialogue so that those who are afraid and sceptical have the opportunity to say what is in their hearts, and there is a change to examine practical solutions that will reassure them, and so they do not put a stop to the country's [progressive] march.
Stagnating brings about more problems, and in the end pushes us towards wrong solutions. It is inconceivable for Saudi society to proudly repeat stories of successful, young Saudi women who are internationally outstanding in their chosen fields – such as Dr. Ghada al Mutairi, who astounded the international medical community with her research, or the biotechnology supervisor Dr. Hayat Sindi, whose invention allowed her to join one of the most important scientific organizations in the world – whilst at the same time depriving them of the opportunity to earn a living and take part in their communities.
*Published in the London-based ASHARQ ALAWSAT on Oct. 1, 2009.