Saudi Arabia: largest women-only university

A Guardian article reports the construction of a 40,000-student university for women only in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The journalist couples the news with critiques of the discriminatory effects of gender-based segregation in the country, commenting that Human Rights Watch has recently released a report describing Saudi women as “perpetual minors.” This would seem to be another one of those moments where anthropological relativism clashes with basic feminist instincts. Shouldn’t women be allowed to work and drive everywhere? Yes, one would certainly think so. But on the other hand, isn’t it ok for some cultures to assign different rights and responsibilities to different people? One would think so too, since all culture have role differentiation — a division of labor, in other words. Is it justifiable to impose Euroamerican standards of freedom and gender equality on the rest of the world? Well, it certainly smacks of ethnocentrism to do so, but there is also a place for universalist politics. What do Saudi women think about it themselves? The article doesn’t give a terribly clear view of that, mostly quoting a researcher, Farida Deif, who finds that women’s mobility in medical school dormitories was highly restricted, and that the Saudi education system perpetuates traditional gender roles.

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