Tag Archives: education

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? 


Filed under Education, unemployment

Riyadh Book Fair 2009

So I went to the Riyadh Book Fair this morning and overall I enjoyed it. The venue has been changed from the years before to the brand new Riyadh City Showrooms and they are a lot more spacious than the old showrooms. However what is on show is more limited than previous years. Maybe because it was so crowded the muttawas couldn’t keep up with what all the stalls were selling. A couple of years back I got these gorgeous Iranian posters from the Riyadh Book Fair.

poster 1

poster 2

 This sort of fare is not available now. I wouldn’t have put it beyond the muttawas to black out the illustrations in children’s books or at least cross out the necks of all drawings of people. But they haven’t gone that far. They did have one of the biggest stalls though and not a book in sight. What they did have on display is all the witchcraft that they have confiscated over the years and a huge flat screen TV with a video running showing how they reverse spells. My husband tells me they also have clothes that they confiscated from local shops that supposedly have unIslamic words written on them in foreign languages. He said that one of the T-shits had the word “sexy” emblazoned across the chest. And of course their stall was the most crowded. I wanted to investigate it more but getting any closer might mean that I would rub shoulders with them and that’s not a smart move with me already being on their bad side because my face was uncovered.

black magic

 muttawa crowd


I wasn’t impressed with the variety of books at the other stalls. The emphasis was largely on religion with stall after stall displaying books about how to be a good wife and how to choose a wife. The guest of honor this year is Brazil but their presence was not felt at all. Everywhere you turn, there’s either an official muttawa from the vice cops or police. I wanted to stand in the middle and shout at the top of my lungs IT’S A BOOK FAIR NOT WOODSTOCK!

Of all the stalls, I saw only one manned by a woman. She told me that she only comes when the book fair is open to women. She came on the first day and it was open to men only and she found it extremely awkward. So whenever it’s men only, she gets a guy to come in her place. She came all the way from France for this lame book fair. She also said that every now and then a muttawa would stop by her stall and “advise” her to cover her face. The newspapers reported that three men complained to the authorities and requested an official apology from the head of the vice police stating that they are respected authors over the age of fifty and they wanted to say hello to a fellow Saudi author, Halemah Mathfar, who happens to be a woman. She had a book signing and the writers were banned from speaking to her. When one of them broke the rules by waving his hand and calling out to Ms. Mathfar “thank you and goodbye”, the three were escorted to the vice cops office at the fair and given a lecture on proper Islamic conduct. The head sheikh of the vice cops at the book fair, Turki Al Shaleel, made this statement regarding the incident: “Our role at the book fair is regulatory to prevent the occurrence of sin, and we treat everyone with respect and try to resolve issues without escalation. There is an agreement between our organization and the Ministry of Culture and Information on signing books at the show. If the author is a woman people have to have their book signed through a third party so as to prevent her direct contact with the public. What happened is that a group of intellectuals objected to the signing, after controversy they reluctantly agreed to the mechanism. Then one of them provokingly raised his hand in front of everyone and called out to the author «Thank you .. good bye ». So he was asked to come to our office. The three intellectuals came voluntarily to the Office of the Hai’a and were not coerced and they left happy.”

 I took my kids over to the children’s area which is strictly women and children only. Kids can make their own bookmarks and then a young Saudi volunteer laminates them. There was a huge reading corner and many children books to choose from. I was hoping that one of the volunteers would read a story to the kids but they mostly sat in a corner gossiping and laminating. I was tempted to read one of the stories aloud to the kids but then changed my mind. Oh well I hope this muttawa deadlock on everything will ease up a little before next year’s book fair.


Filed under Annual Book Fair

The problem lies within

With the exception of the Human Rights Organization, to my knowledge there are no organized associations or unions of women rights activists in Saudi Arabia. Those who care are doing it individually and at the local level quietly. Most of them, like myself, are talking to the outside world more than the inside. On the other hand, women who believe in their own oppression are organized in so called religious groups; Quran circles, charity organizations, and teach their point of view in schools. They have seemingly infinite financial backing to publish all the literature they need to get across their narrow interpretations of Islam. Some women even work for the vice cops. And this is the problem. It’s not the government that oppresses women, it’s the women themselves who believe in this ideology and pass it along to their daughters. The problem lies in the imbalance of information. The ultra-conservative interpretation of Arab traditions and Islam is officially sanctioned by the government, so it is taught (actually drilled into) students through the curriculum and occasional lectures by sheikhs and women Islamic missionaries. Then outside of school they are reminded of it through the distribution of free pamphlets at social gatherings, hospital waiting rooms, and even when shopping. Sometimes street ads are paid for to show an abaya and a flower where the face is supposed to be to get across that women are flowers that should be covered and protected. Ironic, considering that flowers don’t thrive unless they are out in the sun. And if you try to discuss this oppression of women and human rights with these ultra-conservatives and their selectiveness in the use of Islamic texts, it all boils down to “the prevention of sin” argument.

At the same time people who believe in a more broad interpretation of Islamic texts are not allowed to express their opinion. When they do, they are quickly dismissed as secularists and liberals as if these were profane terms. They are also quickly assumed as not being really Saudi. I can’t count the number of times that other Saudis have assumed that I am from mixed heritage. Your mother must be Syrian, Egyptian or Turkish, they tell me. When I tell them that my parents were neighbors who grew up together in the Qaseem region, they are unfailingly shocked. All this just because I happen to voice a different opinion from the accepted walking jewels who are put on this Earth for the enjoyment of men, shopping and popping out kids. I digress. My point here is that we should have a more moderate Islam that is grown locally through Saudi literature, women rights awareness and respectable examples. Young ladies should not be made to feel guilty or rebellious just because they don’t like covering their faces or want to drive. As if wanting these means they carry some lewd ulterior motive.


Filed under Culture, Gender Apartheid

Prominent Saudis: Mrs. Nora Al Faiz

Mrs. Al Faiz has only recently become a household name in Saudi Arabia. She comes from an average middle-class family from the central region in Saudi Arabia. She graduated from King Saud University in Riyadh in 1978 majoring in Sociology. She married Sulaiman Al Suwlai a year before graduating and later accompanied him for higher education in the USA where she went on to get a masters degree in education from Utah State University in 1982.  After returning to Saudi Arabia, she worked as a teacher in public schools for a couple of years and was quickly promoted to educational supervisor and then from there she moved on to numerous management positions in the field of education, most notable of which is head principal of the girls section at Prince Al waleed bin Talal’s Kingdom Schools. And the most recent was director of the women’s section at the Administration Institute in Riyadh. And I just have to add here that in her last post she truly made a reputation for herself and I have yet to come across any negative comments by people who have worked or studied under her. Also I myself, having sat at a few recruitment interviews, I find that the ladies from the Administration Institute always outshined the others in professionalism and skills.

What truly stands out about the appointment of Mrs. Nora Al Faiz is that even though she is highly qualified, everyone was surprised that she was chosen. Usually high profile women positions are reserved for members of the royal family or at least distant relatives. Some of my friends just assumed that Mrs. Al Faiz is somehow related to the royal family. Another issue concerning Mrs. Al Faiz that has overtaken the topic of her being appointed on forums and in social gatherings is the emergence of a photo of her with her face uncovered. The photo was taken from a book, Saudi Leaders, of which there is a digital version at:


 Some of the more outrageous comments that I saw is one at a women only forum in which someone started a thread urging all women to condemn the publication of the photo in newspapers on the basis that this will lead to girls looking up to an uncovered Saudi woman and ultimately Allah’s punishment of our country. Some of the ladies at these forums think that the photo is a passport photo that was stolen from Mrs. Al Faiz and published against her will as part of a conspiracy against Muslim women.

Today in Al Watan newspaper, there was an interview with Mrs. Al Faiz and the photos accompanying the interview were of her father, her sons and a baby granddaughter (everyone except the interviewee). The interview was impressively long and comprehensive. I’m only going to translate the parts concerning her stance on the publishing of her photo in local newspapers and a few other points. I would like to point out beforehand that the administration that runs girls’ education in Saudi is completely male:

Q. The sections concerning the administration of women is all male and they waited for you to visit as part of your introductory tour last Sunday but you did not pass by them.

A. I’ve never said that I would visit mens’ office buildings and I have no intention of visiting them because I am still a woman of this country and the blood that runs through my veins is Saudi. Saudi Arabia has guided us in not mixing with men. Men are my brothers and colleagues and with my hand in theirs we will carry out this journey together regardless if the man is above me or a subordinate. We have means through which we can carry on discussions such as closed circuit TVs. And we have a meeting today with managers and general directors through closed circuit and we will exchange on an intellectual level and not as a man to a woman. We will meet intellectually, cooperate and hold each others hands. Gender is an obstacle that can be overcome between men and women.

Q. How will meetings with the minister of education be conducted?

A. Through closed circuit TV as well.

Q. The building of the administration of girls’ education forbids the entrance of women even though it runs an administration which chiefly concerns women. If women need to have paperwork done they have to resort on asking a male relative or hiring a male representative, will this continue?

A. Now I’m the deputy minister and my door is open and accessible And Allah willing we will make it as easy as possible for people who need a service.

Q. We saw your photo on the first page of a newspaper with photos of other ministers, what is your comment regarding that?

A. The publication of my photo upset me immensely and frankly I don’t know where they got it from but they asked me several times and I rejected and it is well known that I am a Saudi woman from Najd and thus I wear a niqab. I will never allow the publishing of my photo in newspapers and I will not accept that it be put up anywhere. Regretfully however I wished that they had first asked me for permission and if I would have prosecuted them through the judicial system, I am sure that I would win. But I am forgiving. If it is possible, I would like to express through your good newspaper my absolute refusal to any form of photography published of me, but some things are out of my hands and Allah is above all and I hope that they will eventually find the true path.

Q. How did they get the photo?

A. I swear that I don’t know its source nor where they got it from.

Q. Did you speak to the newspaper and try to ask about your photo?

A. yes, and a lady from there came to meet me and told me that they would publish it again and I said no please and if you do, expect that there will be a reaction on the photo from me or the vice minister Faisal Al Moamer.


Filed under Uncategorized