Although several years have passed since the establishment of Al-Zahraa University for Women in the Iraqi city of Karbala, Iraqi women academics still disagree about the need for its existence.
Some believe having women-only universities is the only way young women from conservative families can finish their education, while others think policies should be put through that change society.
A Unesco report in 2019 said it was estimated that more than a quarter of Iraqi women were illiterate, with the percentage rising to 50 percent in rural areas.
Al-Fanar Media spoke to Maram Youssef, an 18-year-old student at Al-Zahraa University for Women, who said she chose to enroll in the university three years ago despite being accepted by other public universities. She said joining a university designated for women allowed her to overcome “potential difficulties in mixed universities.”
She defended the idea of the university, saying studying there was a “fundamental right and a free choice that finds societal acceptance.”
Conservative Families’ Concerns
“The university gives women confidence. Learning separately from men increases their educational attainment, psychological comfort and achievement of advanced levels.”Zainab Al Sultani President of Al-Zahraa University for Women
Al-Zahraa University for Women was founded in 2019 as the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education’s first university-level academic institution specialising in female education. It has three faculties—Pharmacy, Medical Technology, and Education—and currently enrols 2,850 female students from a number of Iraqi governorates.
The university is affiliated with the Imam Hussain Holy Shrine in Karbala, a Shiite religious institution that runs educational, charitable, and construction activities in southern Iraq.
The idea of establishing the university began in 2016, after some conservative families in the cities of Kufa, Najaf, and Karbala refused to enrol their girls in mixed universities, according to Abdul Razzaq Al-Issa, the minister of higher education in Iraq at the time.
Al-Issa told Al-Fanar Media that these families took that position because of “religious and social convictions.” He said a number of young women had been forced to join the Faculty of Education for Women at the University of Kufa, despite their scientific ability to enrol in mixed medical colleges.
While Al-Issa believes university “should be a field for gender equality between men and women,” he attributes his ministry’s decision to establish the women’s university to “meeting the societal and economic conditions of these cities and helping young women continue their education, rather than dropping out because their families had refused to let them go to mixed universities.”
Giving Women Confidence in Their Studies
“Female-only universities should be judged on whether this type of education is used to empower women, rather than limit or suppress them, and the societal context that led to their existence.”Maysaa Jaber Professor of English at the University of Baghdad.
The president of Al-Zahraa University for Women, Zainab Al-Sultani, told Al-Fanar Media that the existence of an all-female university “is not a defect or underdevelopment because there are similar educational institutions in Europe.” She referred to Europe’s International Women’s University, known as IFU, in Suderburg, Germany, as an example.
Al-Sultani said her university had “succeeded over the past years in preparing female leaders and providing them with educational and life skills.”
The university’s goals are to bring about positive change for female students by developing education, teaching and training activities … while developing their skills in scientific research and innovation through high-quality educational programmes, she said.
Al-Sultani also believes that “the university gives women confidence. Learning separately from men increases their educational attainment, psychological comfort and achievement of advanced levels.”
Women make up 70 percent of the university’s teaching and administrative staff. Male professors fill gaps in the teaching staff in medical colleges.
Wafaa Al-Sahn, a faculty member, had four years of experience in co-ed universities before coming to Al-Zahraa University for Women. She told Al-Fanar she found it better teaching only women.
Al-Sahn, who holds a doctorate in English from the University of Baghdad, said female students were calmer and understood the lectures better, which made them more efficient in their work.
She said it was important to have women’s universities because they can take female students whose families do not want them to go to mixed universities. “Why should a girl be denied completing university when there are alternatives to help her do so?” Al-Sahn asks.
‘A Serious Matter’
“The establishment of a university by government decision based on this principle represents a serious issue. It reinforces the existence of errors in the relationship between the sexes and increases transgressions between them, because everything forbidden is desirable.”Hadeel Abdelhameed An Iraqi researcher in women’s studies
Some female academics, however, do not support the idea.
Hadeel Abdelhameed, an Iraqi researcher in feminist studies, told Al-Fanar Media she believes the establishment of a women-only university by a government decision is “a serious issue” because it “reinforces the presence of errors in the relationship between the sexes, and increases transgressions because everything forbidden is desirable.”
The university “supports the separation of the sexes in the classroom and the existence of a gap between the sexes” in society, said Abdelhameed, who is a researcher at the Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Australia’s Deakin University.
She considers the issue “one of the results of the societal transformations that followed the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003, which made Iraqi society more radical.”
The separation of men and women is not new in Iraq, said Abdelhameed. She said that while teaching two decades ago at the University of Baghdad, which is mixed, she was “forced to separate the sexes at times,” according to instructions from the university administration.
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Abdelhameed thinks solving the problem of conservative families’ fear of mixed universities begins with designing policies to change the way these groups think, encouraging young women to mix and emphasising mutual respect between the sexes.
Maysa Jaber, a professor of English at the University of Baghdad, said the issue with this type of education was how it was used and whetherits impact on women was positive or negative. She women’s colleges exist even in the United States, giving the example of Scripps College, in Claremont, California.
Jaber said “female-only universities should be judged on whether this type of education was used to empower women rather than limit or suppress them, and the societal context that led to their existence.”