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Saudi Arabia's new university to let women unveil and study with men

The King Abdullah Science and Technology University opened Wednesday is meant to break ground on Saudi Arabia’s scientific learning and gender norms.

By David MonteroCorrespondent / September 24, 2009



For the first time in Saudi Arabia’s history, men attending a university north of Jeddah will have special classmates – women.

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The conservative country unveiled on Wednesday its first ever fully coed university, the King Abdullah Science and Technology University (KAUST). In the past, women in the notoriously gender restrictive kingdom were only allowed to take classes separately from men.

The inauguration of KAUST is meant to signal two important developments: a lauded, if politically volatile, softening of hard-line rules, and the kingdom’s rising ambitions of being a hub of scientific learning. Both aims, Saudi Arabia’s rulers hope, will help blunt the impact of extremism.

The university’s lavish inauguration on Wednesday met with glowing praise, according to this description from Arabnews.com:

Breathtaking, spectacular and just amazing. That is how Wednesday's inauguration ceremony of the multibillion-dollar King Abdullah University of Science and Technology was described by a large section of the nearly 3,000 guests that included prominent Saudis, foreign leaders, Nobel laureates, researchers, scientists and journalists.
Women guests in the audience carried along by the heady atmosphere of excitement and expectation spontaneously broke into traditional ululation, a sign of joy and good will.

There's a lot for women to be happy about, as Al Jazeera reports:

[T]he new university will not require women to wear veils or cover their faces, and they will be able to mix freely with men.
They will also be allowed to drive, a taboo in a country where women must literally take a back seat to their male drivers.

The university’s relaxed rules appear to be part of a larger softening of gender segregation, as the Christian Science Monitor recently reported:

Agents of the feared Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice are responsible for enforcing the restaurant rules. But these days, things have been relaxed a bit and it is possible for a group of foreigners who include unrelated men and women to dine together without incident. And in Jeddah, the commission’s enforcers have been banned from entering restaurants to spy on groups or couples who might be disobeying the gender segregation rules that offer a unique dining experience.

The opening of KAUST is seen as a decisive step in an ongoing battle with the kingdom’s extremist elements, as Reuters notes:

King Abdullah has promoted reforms since taking office in 2005 to create a modern state, stave off Western criticisms and lower dependence on oil.
But he faces resistance from conservative clerics and princes in Saudi Arabia, one of the world's top oil exporters.
Al Qaeda militants launched a campaign against the state in 2003, blaming the royal family for corruption and opposing its alliance with the United States...
Officials who back Abdullah fear that without reforms young people will be drawn to militancy in the future.

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