Education in KSA

Two areas that ultra-conservatives have a stronghold on in Saudi are the judicial system and the education sector. These ultra-conservatives do not pay much heed towards the banking sector, healthcare, commerce and all other areas. But when it comes to our courts and our schools, they just won’t budge. In this post I’m going address  the education sector and their control over it.

This control goes way back to 1960 when it was decided that girls will be allowed to get an education. Men from all over but mainly from Qaseem travelled to the capital to express their opposition even though the girl schools were completely gender segregated and had a separate administrative body overseeing it from the education ministry overseeing the boys’ schools. Throughout the years, the ministers of girls’ education were overwhelmingly long-bearded muttawas and the whole ministry favored employing people who were religiously conservative. Those were the days when mirrors were banned from bathrooms, and uniforms that define the waist or have a belt were against the rules even for teachers. All our beautiful little girls were dressed in bland gray or brown cloth cut into the shape of your grandma’s full-length and long-sleeved house dress. If they cut their hair too short they were punished, and if they styled or let their long hair down they were punished. Stories about principals putting Vaseline in girls’ hair as punishment abound.

Around 1974, the idea that elementary schools would not be gender –segregated was floated around. At that time Shiekh Bin Baz and Sheikh Bin Othaimeen were the most prominent religious leaders. A news organization recently unearthed correspondence that is alleged to be between the two sheikhs in which they were conspiring on how to stop the sinful mixing of boys and girls in elementary schools. Scans of the handwritten letters are also shown in the report.

The country’s concession to the religious establishment’s control over girls’ education stayed pretty much the same through out the 1980s and 1990s. Things changed on the 11th of March 2002, but only after 15 girls died in a fire after the PVPV obstructed the entrance to the school. The PVPV did not let out students who weren’t covered and did not allow the civil defense to enter the school. HRW and BBC Reports of the incident.

The separate ministry responsible for girls’ education was absolved and the administration of girls’ schools was put under the care of the main education ministry that was already overseeing the boys’ schools. How has this changed things on the ground? Not much. Most girl schools are locked during school hours. Physical education is still banned for girls. Subjects are still gender-specific, so that there’s a different science book for girls than the one for boys and so on for all subjects. Some of the things that have changed are the uniforms. For the past three years, elementary girls wear a plain white or striped blouse with a sleeveless gray overdress and the same for older girls except that the dress is navy. Both have defined waists.  It’s an improvement.

The biggest changes are that since last year, principals are given the freedom to choose to allow boys from first to third grade, on the condition that classes would be segregated. The point being that boys at this young age would be better off taught by female teachers and to open up more positions in the education sector for unemployed women. This gender mixing of course is being fought by the religious establishment just like in 1974. Shiekh Yousef Al Ahmed escorted a band of muttawas to object this decision at one of the education ministry offices. A judge published a piece on a hypothetical  situation where a first grade boy is so attracted to his teachers that he flunks on purpose to stay in the girls’ school for as long as possible. Then 20 years later he still can’t stop thinking about them so he finds and hooks up online with one of his elementary teachers resulting in her divorce. In their minds this is not at all far-fetched.

So what’s a typical school day in a Saudi girls’ public school? The day starts with assembly at 6:45 am. First class starts at 7 and the school day ends at 12:30 pm. This is a school schedule for an 8th grade class:

Arabic Grammar
Home economics
Islamic jurisprudence
Arabic spelling
Islamic jurisprudence
Extracurricular activities
Prophet’s traditions
Quranic interpretation
Arabic reading
Quranic interpretation
Arabic Grammar
Arabic literature
Arabic writing

As you can see, about a quarter of the time a student is at school, she is learning religion. All that time learning religion and morals and yet our whole society has a culture of unofficially and officially policing each other otherwise we would go wild. After all that religious teaching and our students can’t even Islamically behave in malls so men are banned from entering them without their families because before the ban many harassed and chased women shoppers. Women can’t walk in the streets fully covered head to toe without being harassed. Work ethics, honesty and abiding laws are not widely practiced concepts.  So what’s the point of all those religious classes if they don’t translate into a moral society?

And then there’s all this hoopla about the improvements in the science and math curriculums and that they are comparable to international standards. Let me show you third grade science books. These are the main spreads from the first lesson of each book:

The Saudi textbook is 145 pages. Most pages only have a few sentences. The American textbook is 495 pages, has a glossary, index, many experiments and most pages contain several paragraphs.

Lastly, there’s the teachers. In all the schools I’ve been in, here in Riyadh and Tabuk, they averaged 30 students per class. Teachers could be given a maximum of 24 periods per week. So if you are a history teacher and each class has two periods, then it’s possible that you would be asked to teach 12 different classrooms. And at 30 students per class, that’s 360 students. That’s quite a feat for a schoolteacher. The workload is only one aspect of  how things are. The female teachers I’ve talked to, also complain about not having any health insurance, about being locked up during school hours and having to convince the principal before being allowed to leave and about gender discrimination when it comes to how pensions are paid out.

I know that the current ministry has big plans for education but they also have mountainous challenges. The religious establishment having had control for so long, their people are in almost every office, dragging their feet against anything that even smells western. The current teaching staff is a product of the very same system and has not known any other, getting them to change would be a miracle. Miracles have been known to happen. ..Right now praying for one, is the only thing I can do.


Filed under Culture, Education, Gender Apartheid, Informative

37 responses to “Education in KSA

  1. Anne

    Hello, I have been reading some of your posts, and I was wondering: what do you want from this blog? Are you for or against Saudi Arabia? Sorry, but it’s not clear to me wether you like you country or not.

    • I think she is giving constructive criticism about her country; and this is only because she loves it and wants change for the best. So definitely FOR a better Saudi Arabia,

      (sorry for answering for you Eman…. but I feel the same 😉 )

    • No one’s patriotism should be questioned because she/he criticizes the culture, government or system of that country. Since yesterday I have been hooked and no where have I read her saying I hate Saudi Arabia.

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  3. Asalaam alaikum,
    Thank you for your insightful post. Your blog gives an American Muslimah.. who is considering teaching in KSA a peek into the culture and society.


  4. Richard

    What an elaborate piece but will to know if you are a product of this educational system? I personally believe in miracles so just keep praying and I assure change is just around the corner. In response to the first comment by Anne…She is as patriotic as you could ever get to want to see and advocating this much needed reforms.

  5. Ricardo

    Allah helps those who help themselves.

    Perhaps the Saudis should stop praying and start doing, in order to finally get themselves out of the dark ages?

  6. Praying and doing can be combined. What is worse – a lot of Saudis stop praying still ‘not doing”.

    Eman, you are writing about governmental schools (sah?), what about the private “sector”? Did you go to a governmental school yourself (I do assume you teach at one). What are the best schools for kids in Riyadh? Thank you for your answer.

    • yes the post is about public schools. With the private sector, each school is different. Some of the best schools in Riyadh (in no particular order): Manarat Al Riyadh, Ambassadors, Kingdom, Najd, Riyadh Najd, Dar Al Aloom. Tarbiya Al Islamiya.

  7. And I was also wondering what do you think about s higher education in KSA? Very interesting subject, btw.

  8. Great piece Eman! As I never studied in the Saudi educational system it is rather interesting to read about it.

    I wanted to also add that funny enough, after all the moral education, and due to segregation, homosexuality is on the rise in government schools here. I have been in shock at the things both my male and female cousins report to me about what happens in the schools. Wouldn’t you think those in charge of morality would think twice about the mistakes they are making?

  9. Every time I read your posts, I get a more black picture of KSA…

  10. Leyla

    It is an insightftul article, not much is written about education in KSA, more on this subject please.

  11. robin

    Assalamu alaikum,
    When are you going to answer, Eman?
    I am interested in knowing where the American or expatriate communities go to school. Are there other options? Where? What about Riyadh?

    I ask because we will be moving there shortly.


  12. om

    yay another saudi bashing post! we’re not interested in solutions you may have, (not that you have any) we just want to hear how terrible it is. keep up the good work

  13. Aminu

    I am a Muslim and I think the Saudi interpretation of Islam is suited to their culture. The practice of Islam in the KSA is based on Saudi culture and traditions, and time long gone. Women were protected long ago because it was indeed dangerous. Today, it remains dangerous because the sexes are not allowed to mingle. This causes an unnatural craving. I am a conservative person but that does not make me force upon the women in my community to hide themselves. They say that the women are happy being covered up? I dare them to pass a law NOT making the wearing of the hijab, tarha, abaya compulsory, and the protection from men/husbands who will force their will on their wives or daughters (men in the KSA usually beat up on women). This will show the world, if indeed, these women prefer to go around all covered up.

    Why are woman harassed? Simple. It’s human nature. The more you prohibit people from doing what is natural, the more they will go out to do it. The hypocrisy in all this is appalling. If they really believe that Islam is the true religion, then what are they afraid of? Why not give the people the freedom to choose? Islam is a tolerant religion. We should GUIDE, NOT FORCE anybody.

    • Better life outside

      Yes Saudi interpretation of Islam – is just that, it is their OWN wahaabi interpretation of Islam. This is only based on a cultural interpetation of islam they are trying to force on other muslims ie Niqab, beards, no library, no museum, no faces on pictures, no women drivers, no cinema. marrying 10 yr olds, yuck this is not what all reasonable muslims believe outside of Saudi. Most muslims have access to better understanding of Islam than the resrictive suffocative life provided to half the population of an entire countries women

      • “Yes Saudi interpretation of Islam – is just that, it is their OWN wahaabi interpretation of Islam.”

        Wahhabi is a derogatory term that means nothing.

        “This is only based on a cultural interpetation of islam they are trying to force on other muslims ie…beards”

        The Prophet (sallallahu alaihi wasallam) and all the Sahaba had beards. Hence it’s Sunnah.

        “This is only based on a cultural interpetation of islam they are trying to force on other muslims ie…no library, no museum”

        There are libraries and museums in Saudia. I don’t know what you’re talking about.

        “This is only based on a cultural interpetation of islam they are trying to force on other muslims ie…no faces on pictures”

        There’s hadith that says:

        ‘Do not leave any image without erasing it or any high grave without levelling it.’

        “This is only based on a cultural interpetation of islam they are trying to force on other muslims ie…marrying 10 yr olds, yuck”

        Do you know what age Aisha (RA) was when she married the Prophet (sallallahu alaihi wasallam)? Are you going to say “yuck” to the Prophet (sallallahu alaihi wasallam) and Aisha’s (RA) father Abu Bakr (RA) on Day of Judgement? Guard your tongue.

        “this is not what all reasonable muslims believe outside of Saudi.”

        What do you believe in then?

        “Most muslims have access to better undeing of Islam”

        Prove that beards are not from Islaam, that physical photos are allowed, and your other claims.

  14. Countrygirl

    You said that there are different science books for boys and girls I’m wondering how they differ?

    Education is pretty important to advance I’m wondering if the establishment don’t want to change things fearing the possible outcome of an average citzen with knowledge of science, math, and so one.

    I still don’t grasp why the religious establishment thinks that is “unsafe” to mingle young boys and girl, maybe the dirt is in their mind only.

    Btw a bit related to this post Iran restricts social sciences seen as ‘Western’

  15. Saudi~LIBER~ALI

    One day, when I was thinking of suicide..

    I thought I’d probably give my life a meaning by writing a suicide letter..

    So, if I ever do it, here it is

    “Kill KSA’s education system, the source of all my pain!”

  16. Jenna

    I work at a University in the US and our second highest international student group is from KSA. Every single undergraduate (as of now male) KSA student who comes here has failed badly in school. To the point where I keep wondering why? We look at transcripts of grades in the KSA but maybe the “A” grade is not as rigorous there? The level of academics here is something these boys are unaccustomed to? I only see it as a trend becuase my students from other countries such as China, Singapore and the like as a whole adjust and do better than the KSA undergraduate students. I do not want them to fail and care for them… but I wonder if they are truly ready for the intensity of a full time undergraduate program in the US in English. I also wonder if it is a maturity issue? Perhaps they are not ready yet to live on campus and account for themselves in this way? On the whole our graduate students are successful from KSA.

    on the other hand, most of my Saudi female graduate students do very very well and work very hard. It is my subjective observation that the Saudi female students work much harder and get better grades and adjust to being in the US much better than they guys. the Saudi women have kids and husband and get all A’s.

    • Coolred38

      Two reasons for the fact that Saudis males do worse then females…and I will base this comment on how Bahraini males do compared to females. Pretty much the same I would guess.

      Every year Bahrain comes out with the stats on student passes and percentages etc and every single year Bahraini girls outshine the boys by quite a large margin. First of all I would venture a guess that not as much pressure is placed on boys…in anything really. They are pretty much allowed to do as they please and that includes take it or leave it attitude about school. My sons told me that the rate of failure in the classes was so high it was a joke among most of their fellow students as to why they even bothered to go to school at all. (not that all boys have this careless attitude, mine certainly didnt).

      Secondly, education is based on memorization…not learning. Students are given a piece of material and are required to memorize it…not think…not summarize…not give an opinion…not give any answer other than a word for word regurgitation of whatever the text says. Everyone of my children can memorize a whole book given if needed, which is interesting all by itself but does nothing to educate them if, once the material is used (exam over) all that information is dropped right out of their heads. I always stressed the importance of understanding the “why” of something rather than just memorize and repeat. Then again, much of religious education is based on that very same concept; memorize and repeat, dont think.

      When it comes to girls, they have a more restricted life, realize an education is the only avenue they have to branch out in some way and therefore dedicate a lot of their time to actually studying and learning rather than just memorizing…though the same requirements are expected of them in schools.

      Making that change in a western type school, college etc, wouldnt be as hard for girls as for boys because they already have that study habit down and have learned to “learn” for the most part…or catch on real quick becuase its important to them. I would guess many Arab boys go to those english colleges carrying their blase’ attititude with them…and find it very hard to let go of and actually take control of their own education for a change.

      Before you can educate children…you need to teach them how to learn…not just memorize and regurgitate.

  17. Tazzy

    Thank you for this insight of your culture and education issues for women within your country.
    It is strange for me to see how woman are treated and I think its sad that you have to fight for these rights wich should have been standard. But I hope they soon will have to change the way they rule the country. And that they can see the value of every human being. Wish you all good luck from Norway

  18. ringpoche

    I think the very low standard of education is really a bit of a tragedy. There is nothing more important for a society than educating its children properly. Teaching them how to think intelligently and investigate problems, would enable them to be useful and productive members of society. Instead they are deliberately disabling the intellectual development of their children. It’s deeply sad.

  19. Hafsa

    wow. i went to school in saudi and NONE of this happened to me. then again, my school was a private interantional school run by an indian couple in Hail. u wont believe this, but my school wasnt even segregated! i was in 7th grade and i had boys in my classes and male and female teachers. we only had a religious class three times a week and our uniforms were dresses for the younger girls, abayas for the older and dress pants and shirts for the boys.

  20. Wafa

    Thank you for your insight to the education system in Saudi Arabia. I got married to someone who has reside all his life in Saudi Arabia, and now that I’m considering to have children, I am certain that I should never consider the option of educating them in Saudi Arabia.

    I do hope that the education system would improve in Saudi Arabia. And emphasize of education shouldn’t just to “transfer” data as what happened in my home country, but on application of the knowledge.

    Insha’allah, if we have leaders that work for the people, nothing is impossible. For now, hope is all we have.

  21. Areef

    I stumbled up on your blog via Americanbedu, it is really a good source of knowing about SaUdi life which is 180 degrees opposite to that of US.
    Appreciate your struggle to make your anguish known and to achieve basic rights which are denied by short sighted individuals who think that they are gaurdians of Islamic principles.

  22. I have really enjoyed reading your blog. I too am a teacher. I teach English as a Second Language at an American university. About 80% of our students are from Saudi Arabia. Recently we realized that the majority of our Saudi students had never read a book in their lives (not even in Arabic), and we have started a huge reading campaign in response to try to help the students prepare for the rigors of studying in a US university.

    I would love to hear more about the education system, benchmarks for promotion at each grade level, content of the curriculum and the differences between girls/boys schools.

  23. I would also like to know how exactly do the girls and boys study books differ from one another?

    Is it true that Saudis cannot go to the international schools? How about Saudis with western mother?

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  25. Hi , in fact I have nothing to do with saudi arabia nor its education or any thing else but I have to say you are really exaggerating !!! I know some schools teaches NOTHING but the Bible and no one is arguing , people have the freedom of practice their faith . I have relatives with Saudi husbands and Saudi wives they tell me that they are happy and living their laves peacefully in the kingdom & they go to schools & colleges there they’re fine , not the best , but not the worst of course !

  26. shashank

    I am not a muslim, neither i am religious. But it is unfair to preject wrongs of only men w.r.t education. Arab women in gulf countries do wat can be considered deviant acts in their society. Lots of arab women have relations with their male drivers, in saudi, UAE etc. Women are different once they travel to europe etc.

    If you feel this comment is unfit, please dont accept. But do reply me in email for sure. i am waiting for ur reply.

  27. Pingback: Einblick: Typischer Stundenplan in einer saudischen Mädchenschule | tazblogs

  28. Even though it is sad that the girl’s get such low rated education, the fact that they go to school at all is a big big achievement. Just the ability to read and write makes one more intelligent more open to liberal ideas and more willing to challenge society’s customs and values. The liberating quality of reading is so powerful that slaveholders were prohibited from teaching their slaves to read and write.

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