The Saudi Arabian king has recently invested 5,3 billion US dollars to open worlds largest women-only university: Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University.
The introduction of a female-only university is linked to the extreme segregation in the Saudi society, where men and women are not even allowed to work in the same place, let alone be in the same room alone. The religious police monitors this and when caught, this usually would lead to a prison sentence or other type of punishment, arguably also used as a means to frame people win unpopular beliefs.
There are also arguments that despite a strong division, the public image of Saudi women is in a process of change. Already in 2003, E. Doumato argued in a book “Women and globalization in the Arab Middle East: gender, economy, and society” that while Saudi women still wear the all covering black abaya, changes are starting to happen and increasingly these outfits would increasingly be “slightly form-fitted, embroidered, flowing, and almost sensual” and women would not cover their eyes. While these changes might be small and incremental and perhaps something easy to overlook and underestimate in secular context, these are still important changes in an extremely rigid and traditional context such as Saudi Arabia.
The establishment of this new university means that there will be more study opportunities for women in Saudi Arabia. University World News (UWN) quotes Abdulkader Alfantookh, the Deputy Minister of Higher Education in Saudi Arabia who argued that this will be an important step by the government to improve the situation of women in higher education. Further, the article cites the University president Huda bint Mohammad Al-Ameel who said that “PNU has become a major symbol of gender equality and women’s education in Saudi Arabia“. On the contrary to popular belief, the UWN article indicates that the majority of university students in Saudi Arabia are women, and the percentage of female researchers is higher in Saudi Arabia than for example Germany, Japan and Korea.