Category Archives: Education

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:

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
Sat
History
Science
Geography
English
Arabic Grammar
Home economics
Sun
English
Science
Islamic jurisprudence
Arabic spelling
Math
Monotheism
Geography
Mon
Islamic jurisprudence
Art
Extracurricular activities
Math
Science
Quran
Tues
Math
Prophet’s traditions
Quranic interpretation
Science
English
Monotheism
Arabic reading
Wed
Quranic interpretation
Arabic Grammar
History
Arabic literature
English
Math
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.

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The great return

A week ago, AlRiyadh newspaper interviewed the minister of higher education and he had some fascinating things to say. If you read Arabic it is really worth reading through the whole interview and if you don’t then you’ll just have to make do with my post about it.

Before getting to the interview, let me explain the context. Soon after King Abdullah came into power in 2005, he initiated the King Abdullah scholarship program wherein each year thousands of young Saudis are sent abroad for BAs, MAs and PhDs. This in itself is not a new concept in Saudi Arabia because in the seventies and early eighties, scholarships were given out freely. However since the mid-eighties they became a lot more restricted. The reason for this sudden pull back has never been openly explained or even acknowledged. And one of its consequences is that Saudi society became even more closed up within itself. So when King Abdullah came along and opened the door wide to all qualified Saudis, many took advantage of the opportunity. The importance of these scholarships to Saudi society is beyond just the educational. To have thousands of our own men and women experience life outside the muttawa ideology bubble will have a huge impact on our future as a people and a country. And it seems that the minister of higher education, Dr. Al Mousa, is of the same opinion. He views the scholarship program as a cultural, social, political and economical integration.

So far the program has wrapped up five phases, the last was this year in which they gave scholarships to 8223 postgraduate students. And that tallies up the number of students on scholarships since 2005 to about 80 thousand. And they are sent to many different countries such as China, France, Germany and Japan. The choice of countries and courses of study to include in the program is left to a committee of 30 professors and professionals. Recently they had considered the Ukraine, however after visiting the universities there, they decided against it. The best universities for medicine according to this ministry appointed committee are the University of London and the University of Maastricht in Holland in which they have reserved 80 places for Saudis. Also an unnamed Canadian university in which they have reserved 300 places. The countries with the highest number of Saudis in their universities are the UK and Australia, so much so that the ministry has decided to stop sending students there for the foreseeable future.

All students who are granted a scholarship must go through an intensive three month English language course and attend workshops and lectures on cultural differences and on how to conduct themselves abroad.

Out of the approximately 70 thousand sent in the past four years, 825 have graduated. 100 of them were given jobs at Al Qaseem University. This is just fantastic because Qaseem is a region notorious for its muttawa ideology and so to have 100 Saudi men and women who have seen and lived abroad work in one of the region’s most influential places can only be good. Others were employed by SABIC, the Saudi airlines and STC.

The minister was also asked about problematic students. According to the minister, 1573 scholarships, 3% of the total, in the past four years were revoked, out of which only 117 were due to moral or legal misconduct. The rest were mainly due to absenteeism and low grades. He comments that these statistics show that the program is a success.

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The Saudi college system

Right now is the time of the year when many households in Saudi Arabia are worrying about their high school graduates getting into a good college. Recently the system has gone through a few changes. In the 80s and 90s it was rather stable especially the girls’ high schools. The boys on the other hand had some variety of choice in experimental schools where the education ministry would try out new systems before implementing them nation-wide.

To get into college, you have to have a high grade which is done in percentage. Each subject is given a score of 100, 50 points for each semester and grades for each subject are added up and divided by the number of subjects. It’s a little bit more complicated than that with marks for attendance and good behavior factoring in. Until recently, only the marks that students got in the final year of high school were taken into account by college administrations. That has proven too stressful for many students and has been a reason for many others to slack off the first two years of high school. So now the system has changed so that the whole three years are considered and the final average point is taken from the marks of all the years spent in high school.

Another new big change is the standardized exams given right after high school. This is one centralized system across Saudi Arabia which administers the exams to all high school graduates each year. An advantage of this new system is that students no longer have to apply to each college in person. All they have to do is take the standardized exam and then after a couple of weeks log onto a website managed by the ministry of higher education and make their choice of major. The system then matches up students with the appropriate college. However this is only for government universities. Students who are interested in private universities have to apply there in person and take other exams that are unique to each private university. The majority of Saudis prefer government run universities because not only are they free (no tuition) but also students get a monthly stipend just for attending. The stipend varies from about 200 dollars up to 400 dollars per month depending on the student’s major. Humanties and arts get the lower end and science and technology the higher end.  

The summer that a Saudi graduates from high school is for many a stressful time what with new changes almost every year and worrying about whether or not they are able to find a placement at a local university. Without a college education, there aren’t many jobs to choose from and so the majority do go on to college. Parents at this time frantically set up fall back plans such as finding someone big to get their rejected child into university, or finding the means to send them to a private university. Some even go as far as to apply to colleges in other towns and cities to expand the likelihood of getting a placement. And in the latter case, if it’s a daughter, family members actually take time off from work to accompany her or for the unlucky ladies pay for a prison like dormitory to take her in.

It’s a time of year when it is polite to call up acquaintances that have kids graduating from high school and ask them how are they coping. And have they been able to get acceptance for their son or daughter? 

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First Saudi Woman Minister

Today is definitely a happy day. Saudi Arabia has made a leap of progress. King Abdullah surprised everyone yesterday morning with major overhauls to the judicial and educational system. And the biggest bombshell of all was that a woman was appointed as head of girl’s education. This is a position that has always belonged to the longest bearded most conservative muttawa possible and now to have a woman in it is FANTASTIC, notwithstanding the fact that the woman who was chosen is a moderate Muslim, educated and a highly qualified woman. She has extensive experience in girl’s education. I doubt that that they could have found anyone more qualified.  

What I found most surprising and I’m sure that someone out there wanted to send a message by publishing this on the first page of Al Eqtisadiya (Saudi version of Financial Times):

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If you take a closer look at the left hand corner, you’ll see a photo of Mrs. Nora Al Fayez right underneath a photo of the new head of the muttawa vice police. Her face is uncovered.

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Now there’s a lot of buzz that of course she wouldn’t be this progressive unless she was a non-tribal woman, probably originating from Jordan or Palestine and she definitely is divorced because no “real” Saudi in his right mind would allow his wife to appear publicly with her face uncovered. I am very proud to say that actually she belongs to one of the biggest tribes in Saudi, Bani Tameem from Al Nawayser part of it and she is from Al Washim here in Najd. Her husband very much supports her and is proud of her.

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Religion is morals

This month the Education Ministry instructed all religion teachers to spend five minutes of every class they teach to lecture students on how to dress properly and avoid western clothes. These instructions are strange considering that all Saudi public schools have very strict dress codes that even govern hairstyles. Girls have to wear a uniform inside the school and a tent style abaya with full face cover coming in and going out of the school while boys have to wear thobes (traditional Saudi menswear) and have their hair almost shaved off. And yet this is not enough, what students wear at home and on their own time under their parents’ supervision has to be addressed too!

Another issue that the Ministry has asked all schools to look out for is that some students come to school with pictures on their bags and stationary supplies. The issued warning is ambiguous about the nature of these pictures but for readers of Arabic you would think it was pornography. Actually it’s more in the nature of the wildly popular Disney High School Musical and Hannah Montana characters. These according to the warning are putting our school environment and the whole of society in dire danger. While the schools do their jobs of confiscating pictures and organizing parental awareness programs, the Ministry has promised to take this up with Saudi commerce to stop allowing these pictures into the country.

In all Ministry of Education supervised schools students spend a lot of time on religious studies averaging about 6 to 9 40 minute classes per week, depending on the grade level. What is taught during all that time? Some of it is just reading and memorizing the Quran which I enjoyed as a student since many of the Quran chapters we took were stories about prophets. But many other classes are devoted to abstract and unrelatable concepts especially at the elementary level. And what I mean by abstract is like a whole subject devoted to monotheism that is taught over and over again from first grade up until students graduate. And then there’s Islamic jurisprudence (Fiqh) in which students learn about which kind of lamb should be sacrificed and how to prepare a corpse for burial, all of this in theoretical terms of course and through mostly rote memorization. What am I getting at? It bothers me that all this time at school is spent on such topics that the majority of students will not have to deal with in real life. What is more, the Ministry is willing to push class time for such a superficial issue like how students dress in their own time but at the same time if you visit any school canteen in our kingdom you will find chaos. I have never seen a school canteen where students stand properly in line waiting for their turn.Come in to any school early in the morning and I guarantee that you will catch some students with their notebooks sprawled out copying last night’s homework. Check out all the posters hanging on the walls of the school and you will see that at least 95% of them were not done by the students whose names are shamelessly written on it but actually some Syrian or Egyptian man in a shop was paid to make it. Teaching students to have pride in making things themselves has not quite caught on.

 The Prophet Mohammed PBUH said (Religion is morals) which means that the main manifestation of Islam within a society is how people deal with each other. So why is respecting others by standing in line not assigned five minutes? Why is plagiarism and pride in one’s own work not assigned a chapter? And how about Saudi arrogance, self-righteousness and racism?

 This post was long overdue having gotten myself into numerous verbal clashes at cashiers because people just won’t wait their turn but what really instigated this topic was that my sister’s friend was beaten up badly by a couple of women at a clothing shop, Zara, because she wouldn’t let them cut in. She took this to court but the women just won’t show up and consequently the hearing keeps getting postponed.

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The Unemployment Rate and Saudi Women

The fifth of November was the deadline for applying for administrative and technical jobs at the new Princess Nora University in Riyadh. There were 218 positions available and the number of applicants was 40000 women and according to the Alwatan news channel the number was closer to 46000. So that is an average of 211 applicants per vacancy! And this is only in Riyadh, although it is the biggest city in the kingdom. Still that is a large number considering the fact that there are over 5 and a half million expatriates in the country, many of whom were brought in to do the very same kind of jobs these unfortunate women applied for. So many women looking for jobs that exist but are out of their reach because of numerous issues. Some of these issues are:

  • One important problem is that expatriates are willing to do these very same jobs for a lot less and for longer hours.
  • Gender also plays a major role since segregation is imposed on almost all sectors.
  • The women might have the right credentials on paper but when you come right down to it they aren’t trained at all. To illustrate I will tell you of three incidents of many that I have come across. The first was concerning a newly appointed computer engineer at one of my workplaces. She was Saudi and had just graduated from a five year program from a major Saudi university. She did not know how to hook up a printer to a computer and had to have a secretary show her. Another very common issue is with the Saudi English teachers at our schools. There are so many times that I have come across quizzes and exams where I had to first correct the questions because they were so full of grammatical and spelling mistakes before I could look at how the students performed. And don’t ever bother asking a Saudi librarian for help, she’s probably just as lost as you are if not more so. Why is this? Because at many of our educational institutes, we only go through the act of teaching and not really teach and train our students for the real world. Unlike the other issues, this problem is being addressed currently and many of these institutes are going through significant changes for the better.
  • We have an overwhelming epidemic of passivity. Maybe it is the heat but it is so disheartening to see the number of young men and women who are not passionate about anything. They act like old men and women at a nursing home. All they care about is their immediate comforts, living day to day in a fog of hopelessness. When I ask them why not do this or that they simply shrug their shoulders. In other countries 46000 applying for the same jobs would cause an outrage and people would take to the streets. A craze of patriotism would take over and heads of companies who do not have a substantial number of Saudis on their payrolls would see boycotts of their products…etc.
  • The final problem that faces women here is mobilization. I know that many people especially Saudis say that this is only a superficial symptom and that there is no urgency in addressing it. I say otherwise. Driving and being able to get around is a major obstacle facing thousands if not millions of women all across the country. 46000 women who were able to reach the university to apply, I wonder how many sat at home begging a brother, father or husband to take them.

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Prominent Saudis: Princess Nora bint AbdulRahman Al Saud

saud-al-kabeer

Princess Nora is the founder of Saudi Arabia’s sister. She was a year older than him, born in 1875. The photo above is of King Abdulazziz on the right and Prince Saud Al Kabeer (P. Nora’s husband) on the left.

She had great influence on King AbdulAzziz and historians write that she really urged him to leave Kuwait and try to get control of Riyadh. Afterwards she became one of his main advisors and he was famously known to say on several occasions “I’m Nora’s brother”. King Abdulazziz also gave his sister a role in raising his sons; whenever anyone of them did anything wrong as a child he would send them to their aunt for discipline. Dame Violet Dickson on meeting Princess Nora stated that she was one of the most important personalities of the Arabian Gulf and commented on how charismatic she was. John Philby was also impressed by the princess and commented that she was the first lady of her country.

She was known to be quite progressive and outspoken. When the telephone first came into the country many Islamic purists thought it was a tool of the devil but she supported its installation and told the people that it was an amazing device that they will not be able to live without. She was also a poet and had written several poems, the most famous of which is the one she wrote when her husband left her behind for travel. Princess Nora passed away in 1950.

A few weeks ago King Abdullah honored his aunt’s memory by naming the first university in Saudi Arabia for women only Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University for Women.

This is another photo but it isn’t of Princess Nora but I still imagine it isn’t far off from what she would have dressed like. This is of Fatima Al Zamil who ruled Hail (a province north west of Riyadh) from 1911 to 1914. The photo was taken by Gertrude Bell.  

hail-woman1

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