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Stereotypes: Perception of Women in Higher Education in the KiNgdom of Saudi
Arabia – A Realm of EmpowerMent 
University of Budapest, Hungary
image of a subservient woman who has no other choice but to comply with the
norms and rules dictated by the orthodox male-dominated society is perhaps the
most common Western perception of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. An entrenched
notion, it is for the most part perpetuated by the standards and norms of Western
culture, which in turn define how we interpret and look at others. The
benchmark then becomes our own culture against which we compare and contrast
the ideas and values of other – often non-Western – societies, as is the case
with Saudi Arabia. The result is ultimately a Western-infused interpretation
that creates bias and overlooks the uniqueness of a particular culture.
main rationale of the following paper is to deconstruct these stereotypical
notions and to describe Saudi society and culture, which is devoid of such
Western apprehension. The focus here is to examine the field of female public
education, with a particular focus on higher education, and thus to show that
Saudi women can be and in fact are empowered by means of education. Historical
accounts – especially the reforms of King Faisal and his wife Iffat Al Thunayan
– demonstrate the achievements in the field that have furthered women’s
educational and, as a consequence, labour market opportunities. While the high
number of female students and graduates exemplify these advancements, such
figures are merely one-dimensional and do not give justice to the underlying
complexities. For this matter, the heritage of Bedouinism (‘tribalism’) and
Wahhabism, the orthodoxy of the Ulema with their monopoly over the
interpretation of Islam and its consequences, influence the public discourse
about advancing girls’ and women’s situation in the kingdom.
concept of ijtihad, also used by Islamic feminism, will add another
layer to the analysis; it can be seen as a tool that enables Saudi women to
move forward on the path of progress by simultaneously balancing tradition and
modernity. As a result, a holistic view will be presented in the paper, in
which the situation of Saudi women is seen and analysed through the lens of
Saudi culture. Then, the unique state of women will not be reduced to the
reductive belief that Saudi girls and women are trapped in a parochial,
patriarchal system, but can become empowered through education, even in the
face the Ulema’s monopoly of Wahhabi Islam, which pervades all aspects
of life and, so too, the domain of female higher education.
Deconstruct; Female students; Higher education; Islamic feminism; Realm of
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