An international affair: Saudi Arabia
By Taniah Tudor
Coming to a coed university like the UA for undergraduate or graduate education can be a challenge for many Saudi Arabian students. In a large part of Saudi Arabia, sexes are segregated until postgraduate education, except for family members. Students, faculty and even staff are either all male or all female. Aside from professional atmospheres where mixed sexes are required, such as a hospital, most workplaces are segregated, as well.
Sefat Al-Warsh, a Muslim woman from Saudi Arabia, said that it was difficult when she first arrived and began taking English classes.
“I couldn’t interact with males. For a year or more I separated myself from other classmates,” Al-Warsh said.
She didn’t speak to men, and when she attended class, she would try to choose a seat close to other women or move her seat as far away as possible from the men in the room.
Now Al-Warsh has overcome that cultural issue, she said. She has dealt with it by thinking of this as only a temporary period in which she is required to work with the opposite sex.
“I can talk to (men) or sit close to them, but I don’t keep them as a friend. I am trying not to lose that custom,” Al-Warsh said.
Not everyone has the same difficulty Al-Warsh has had, she said. Female students who come from areas of Saudi Arabia that already have mixed schools adjust more easily to the level of interaction between sexes in the United States, she said, and men, even from segregated areas, also adjust more easily because they don’t feel the same pressure to keep traditional customs.
Al-Warsh is at the UA on scholarship, and by Saudi Arabian law she must have a male companion accompany her. Her two brothers live with her; the younger one is here on scholarship himself and the older is here as her companion. The purpose of the male companion is to protect her and have someone responsible watching over her, but Al-Warsh said custom and law don’t always meet up with reality.
“I do everything – buy the groceries, wash the dishes. I keep all the responsibility,” Al-Warsh said. Many times it is the women who take care of the men and keep the honor of the family, she said.
When she returns to Saudi Arabia, she plans to become a professor in an all-female university. It is a more comfortable environment for Al-Warsh because she doesn’t have to keep the restrictions of her religion and culture. She can leave her hair uncovered, use make-up and wear fitted clothes.
“I have more freedom … I can live my life as a girl,” Al-Warsh said.
The king of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, recently opened a new coed university, but Al-Warsh doesn’t approve. She is afraid it will cause problems in a society that has not adjusted to mixed-gender interaction.
King Abdullah succeeded to the throne in 2005 and the new university is not the only change he has made. He also appointed the first woman to the Saudi Council of Ministers as deputy minister for women’s education in 2009.