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World's Largest Female only University in Saudi Arabia

Updated on May 11, 2015

Princess Nora bint Abdul Rahman University

Princess Nora bint Abdul Rahman University is the world’s largest university exclusively for women. It is located in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia and currently accommodates up to 60,000 female students. I was able to spend some time in this country and witnessed the extreme cultural differences first hand. In past years, Arabic women have not had the same freedoms that we enjoy. For example, their behaviors are closely monitored, along with their actions, down to the way they are allowed to dress in public. While this is all women have known in the past, the country is slowly beginning to empower women as evidenced by the increase in adult education now available to women. This University is dedicated to the enrichment of women’s lives.

Upon opening of the University, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud who had dedicated a large portion of his time and energy into this project is quoted as saying "Women carry a responsibility that is more than a duty, to maintain the stability of society and contribute to building the economy of the nation, and to represent the community and the nation to the highest standards, outside and inside the country. To be the caring mother, exemplary citizen and productive employee. Outside the nation, to be the ambassador of her country and community, and to represent well her religion, faith and our values."

Princess Nora

Saudi Arabia Background

Saudi Arabia continues to remain near the bottom of the world regarding women’s equality. Women cannot drive and must remain covered from head to toe with veils and long robes when in public. They are all required to have a male guardian and must seek his approval for even the most basic of needs such as medical care. Employment remains segregated whereby women and men are not permitted to work at the same place. This limits jobs available to women. They currently make up only about 14% of all employees in the workforce.

Religion plays a very important role in the Arabic culture. Islam is the primary religion with a direct influence on business customs, governmental rule, and day-to-day life. Each Arab county interprets the Islam law differently, in that some follow it very strictly, while others refer to it as a general set of guidelines. Despite the differences, every Muslim is required to pray five times per day. Prayer is the top priority above all other obligations and responsibilities.

Family is another important aspect of the Arab culture. Men and women within the family have very separate roles. It is the responsibility of the men to take care of the family financially, while the women are in charge of the home and children. I was able to witness this firsthand, during my time spent in the country. Although I was in the military and governed by the Military, we still have to follow and respect their traditions. Those traditions are still the case today in the majority of households. Loyalty to the family is of utmost importance, ahead of loyalty to oneself or country. Honor and respect are paramount. If an individual’s honor is compromised they are ruined in the eyes of the family and community. Due to this, most Arabic’s conduct themselves very well in public, leaving the best possible impression on others. With the strict ways Arabic’s are to conduct themselves in public, privacy is a very important cultural value. Discussion of family issues and problems does not happen outside of the family. Individuals will quickly lose honor within the community if this occurs. While all of this seems very restrictive it follows years of tradition. Morality in Islam addresses every aspect of a Muslim’s life from the way they greet each other to international relations with other countries.


Princess Nora Overview

Despite Arabic women’s inequalities, they do have access to a solid education. More women than men actually receive degrees. In 2004, the first all-women university was announced. The opening of Princess Nora unified all six of the original colleges in the city of Riyadh. Other colleges around the Kingdom unified and expanded within their regions, into independent universities. The university first existed in 1970 as the first College of Education for women in the Kingdom, The Riyadh University. Within 25 years, there were 102 similar colleges around the country, offering programs of education, social service, science, arts and home economics. The most spectacular of these is the Princess Nora bint Abdul Rahman University.

The 32-million square foot campus contains sports facilities, a medical center, a health sciences and research center, and a K-12 school. The University has the capacity to support up to 60,000 students. The buildings are sophisticated with multi-facet layers and beautiful architecture. Beautiful courtyards surround the buildings offering a place for women to pray and learn, all of which recirculate air and cool areas with water mist. With prayer a crucial part of the Arabic’s day, the University was intent on providing a place for prayer. The desert conditions lead to creating an adaptable environment for the extreme heat during the day and the colder evenings. The University even houses an elevated transit system to move students around the campus. This campus appears to be a truly amazing campus with a very solid mission and vision.

Princess Nora’s vision is to become a beacon of knowledge and ethical practices for women. Their mission is to become a comprehensive university for women, distinguished with its academic leadership and scientific research that contributes to building a knowledge economy with societal and international partnerships. The goal of the university remains to empower women with education. This begins with ensuring that education in all fields open up, and restrictions regarding female employment in male dominated fields are lifted.

A Work in Progress

The Princess Nora University is still a work in progress. While changes and updates are continually occurring within the walls, the majority of change is occurring outside. In this instance, the importance of women’s education is not completely realized by Arabic leaders, thus leading to external environments hindering change. Princess Nora and other Universities are in place with the facilities created, and the curriculum in place, however the true support to deliver a world-class education is still in the creation process. The encouraging factors are that many students studying in other countries are returning to the University as professors. Thus the level of education is continually improving with more experienced professors.

Change occurs in direct relation to the external environment affecting the mission and culture of the University. One major challenge is that many leaders in Saudi Arabia have not yet accepted the value of adult education, especially where it concerns the female gender. This view affects the climate within the University. Therefore, according to the model, motivation for improvements is affected.

In addition to external environments influencing change, culture also plays a big role in the limits of change to date. Organizational culture is described as the way things are done, based on beliefs, behaviors, values and conventions. Culture change occurs over time as a result of prominent changes made in the behavior and perceptions of individuals. In order for the University to continue down the path of improvements in the education offered, change must occur from within and outside of the University surrounding the views of the importance of female adult education. While the University opening its doors is a large advancement in the educational opportunities for Arabic women, there is still a need for continued advancement in the education actually delivered. There is room for improvement in making the learning more practical and giving the students more real world experience. Internships and other community projects would greatly enhance the education received by the students, better preparing them for real world employment beyond the confines of the classroom.

It is encouraging to see that Saudi Arabia is providing more women with skills and knowledge to respond to the growing challenges of new technologies as the country works to keep up with other countries technologically. However there is still room for improvement of the perceptions and views of the importance of adult education for women.

Educational System of Saudi Arabia

There are a number of paradigm shifts that have occurred within the educational system of Saudi Arabia. Many of these paradigm shifts have occurred in the field of women’s education. With the opening of Princess Nora, and other women’s universities, education has taken more of an important role in the lives of Arabic women. It is impossible to discuss women’s education in Saudi Arabia without considering the social and political forces that have shaped women’s status in education. The Arabic society has traditionally supported men’s education more than women’s education. However recent studies done by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, show that women’s education is beginning to take another route. The study showed that the majority of people in the Gulf Region are in support of women having the same opportunities as men. The feeling is that women should no longer be confined to only certain areas of study.

However, contrary to the US, Saudi’s do not support a woman having more education then her spouse. So there are still limitations. Nevertheless most men in Saudi Arabia surveyed by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, stated they would rather marry an educated women. However most did not want their wives contributing to the household income, as they felt threatened by that. So the feelings are still somewhat convoluted. It seems the men are for educated women, but against women using that education to better themselves, leading to more independence.

Another concern of Arabic women’s colleges, particularly Princess Nora, is that women who spend too long in school reduce their chance of getting married. The number of single women throughout the country is substantially increasing to close to one third of the total women in the country. This number is expected to increase unless the government increases support regarding how educated women can also contribute to the society.

This effort to increase support of women’s education must be led by the universities such as Princess Nora. The educational systems must work to increase the open-mindedness of the country’s population. As understanding increases, female students will become more empowered to obtain an education and become working and contributing members of society.

Women's Rate of Participation in the Workforce


In Conclusion

While the opening of a large university is an indication of Saudi's interest in educating women, the country has to do much more to lift restriction on women's employment. The general mission of higher education is to educate students to be future leaders. Saudi Arabia has a shortage of leaders within the private sector. There is a tremendous deficit between the growth and the available talent. Therefore the country must address the growing leadership shortage, beginning with the women. It is increasingly necessary for universities to teach students to be future leaders. The challenge remains how to develop leaders through the teachings. They must identify critical leadership knowledge, skills, values, attitudes and beliefs. Much of this is learned by which individuals are brought up, however must be enhanced and further developed through teaching.


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