Effat University, the first private university for women in Saudi Arabia, has announced that it will open its doors to male students this year. They won’t be sharing classrooms with female students, however.
Announcing its decision last month, the administration said university buildings, classrooms, laboratories, libraries, activities, educational and administrative services, and all facilities would remain segregated by gender.
Two men will start studying at the university’ College of Business Administration in the second semester, the administration said. The number of male admissions is expected to increase next year to about 400, equal with the number of female students.
Effat University was established as the country’s first private, non-profit women’s college in 1999. It acquired university status in 2009. It is named for Queen Effat Al-Thunayan (1916-2000), wife of the late King Faisal Al Saud.
The university’s president, Haifa Jamal Al-Lail, told Al-Fanar Media that the queen had supported the right of all humans, whether male or female, to a good education. “The operating license and accreditation of the university is not limited to receiving female students only,” she said. (See a related article, “A Conversation With Effat University President Haifa Jamal Al-Lail.”)
“The improvement of the university’s financial capacity to establish new service facilities and separate classrooms for males encouraged the University Council to approve the decision a year and a half ago.”Haifa Jamal Al-Lail
Effat University’s president
She added that about 50 male students a year enquired about the possibility of enrolling at Effat. “The improvement of the university’s financial capacity to establish new service facilities and separate classrooms for males encouraged the University Council to approve the decision a year and a half ago,” she said.
‘A Diamond Era for Women’
Over two decades, Effat School for Women has grown from a college with two departments and 37 students into a university with about 1,100 students. They study in disciplines as diverse as engineering, architecture, humanities, and business administration.
The decision to admit men follows the launch of “Vision 2030” by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2016. Saudi Arabia has already witnessed major changes, including allowing women to drive or enter football stadiums, reopening cinemas, allowing concerts, and establishing a General Entertainment Authority. The authorities have also permitted men and women to share public places. (See a related article, “Crown Prince Pushes Change in Saudi Higher Education.”)
Jamal Al-Lail believes that societal changes “encouraged the university to expedite this decision.” But she asserted: “Since the establishment of the university, we have been preparing for these changes, in order to improve conditions for Saudi women.”
For example, the university made engineering majors available to women after a decree by the late King Abdullah, in 2004. It was also the only Saudi university that offered a bachelor’s degree in cinema studies after the opening of its School of Cinematic Arts in 2013, Jamal Al-Lail noted. (See a related article, “Film Studies Thrive in Saudi Arabia, Promising Jobs and Cultural Change.”)
“We are participating in this change and opening up at every step,” she said. “We are currently living in a diamond era for women in the areas of employment, education, and all aspects and the political leadership that opened the field is the supporter of all this.”
Opening a Discussion
Linda Maloul, dean of Effat College of Humanities, also sees the enrollment of male students as a positive development.
A Jordanian academic who specializes in gender studies, Maloul said that allowing male and female students to study together “helps to promote the idea of gender equality, by opening a discussion between them”.
This “creates a state of tolerance, interaction, dialogue and acceptance of the other party, all of which are necessary for the normal relationship between male and female,” she said.
Maloul added that university teachers also would benefit from the decision.
“Listening to two different points of view … helps to revitalize the mind and enrich the teaching process,” she said.
“Interacting with male students will help female students adapt to workplaces after graduation.”Lamis Al-Maghrabi
Head of the Shura Council for Effat University Students
Recently, Maloul participated in training courses with university colleagues on how to deal with male students, including teaching methods and specific rules for treatment. Female faculty members recommended that “they be treated with respect and awareness of male mentalities”, she said.
Not Something Strange
Female students welcomed the move to admit men. Lamis Al-Maghrabi, head of the Shura Council for Effat University Students, told Al-Fanar Media via Zoom: “The presence of men at the university is not something strange or new.”
Al-Maghrabi noted that “there are male professors who teach us and the master’s degree students with whom we discuss many things, in addition to the fact that most of the female students of my generation deal with males abroad.”
A third-year student of finance at the College of Business Administration, she added that interacting with male students will help female students adapt to workplaces after graduation.
According to Jamal Al-Lail, only two students objected to the decision, mistakenly believing that males would share classes with them.
Jubeir Al-Ghamidi, a third-year student at the College of Engineering at King Saud University, said in a phone call with Al-Fanar Media that he expects Effat University’s decision will help other institutions to take “daring” steps such as “allowing male and female students to study in the same classrooms”.
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Maloul agreed, saying: “This transformation will eventually happen in two or three years. It is a coming stage, but it takes some time and needs the acceptance of society.”
Jamal Al-Lail added that “such a step will be done according to societal acceptance, and the capabilities available to the university.”