THERE is probably no more important issue than tuition that affects Saudi women attending universities abroad than the requirement to have a mahram.
One of greatest joys and probably the most important decision for potential students is the opportunity to study abroad. But for many women the opportunity just isn’t there.The Ministry of Higher Education has been unmoving in its policy to require that a male relative accompany a female student on a scholarship to a university in a foreign country.
Women who are attending universities at their own expense are not required to have a mahram. But every female student on a scholarship is not only required to have a male relative with her, but to have the man present his passport to the Saudi embassy to have it recorded and approved.
All of this ensures that the woman has an appropriate guardian but also that the tuition money is used properly.Unfortunately, this policy leaves many women unable to attend a Western university.
Saudi Arabia has always placed huge emphasis on studies at Western universities. Our fathers and older brothers enjoyed the best educations in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia and brought back that education home.
Saudi Arabia is a better place today because these men have a global perspective of life and also about how it can be applied to Saudi society.
The post 9/11 world has severely affected the availability of these opportunities.But in the past year or so, the United States has relaxed conditions in issuing visas for Saudi university students and we are beginning to see the number of students climb to pre-9/11 levels.And even better is the fact that more and more women are now able to go abroad for their undergraduate studies or to pursue their master’s or doctorate degrees.
With more women entering the workplace and the Saudi government easing its restrictions on gender segregation, women see a wide horizon in employment opportunities.But at the same time it is counterproductive to have stringent rules in place that deny many Saudi women an opportunity to enjoy the benefits of a foreign education that their fathers and brothers experienced.
I’m talking, of course, of those bright young women who are eager for an education, but come from a family that can’t afford to have one of its men away from Saudi Arabia for four years and remain jobless.Or those smaller families that have no male relative to accompany them abroad.
Should these women be penalized because they don’t come from large families with an abundance of idle brothers or a retired uncle or father who can afford to play tourist in a foreign country for four years? Not to mention the fact that immigration officials in some Western countries can’t grasp the idea of a mahram and wonder what a Saudi man with time on his hands is going to do with himself for four years.
The answer to this problem is deceptively simple.Saudi women can travel freely without a mahram simply by having written permission. I am among the lucky ones who have a full-time maharm to accompany them during their years of study.My father has also given me a written permission that has allowed me to travel to the United States, the United Kingdom, South Korea and Japan among other countries.
A similar, and yes, even bold, plan can be developed for female students wishing to study abroad.But perhaps more practical would be developing a system that allows Saudi women to be grouped, perhaps as many as five women, who live together in a dormitory setting and can share household responsibilities and look out for each other in the academic, social and domestic environments.
If the Ministry of Higher Education believes it can’t trust five Saudi women living together, perhaps an appointed “den mother” or “den father” can be approved by the ministry to watch over all five girls.
These are not meant to be perfect solutions, but a starting point to discuss how we can honor the Hadith in which a mahram is required and allow women their right to a full education.Given that increasing numbers of women entering the workforce and many of these women in management positions, it does a disservice to the country that we deny some women a fair chance at an education simply because they are not in a position to have a full-time mahram over a long period of time.
We are witnessing exciting times as we aggressively pursue a diverse economy.Working women are becoming more important to that diverse economy, but we only harm ourselves by denying them the right to a full education.