An American University plans an engineer training facility in Saudi Arabia that will admit only men. That’s drawn criticism, but the plan is a net gain for Saudi civil society, and we hope it goes ahead.
If Cal Poly San Luis Obispo had wanted to start an engineering program for a university in someplace like Norway, the proposal probably would have sailed through without much comment either on campus or off.
But the school’s plan to start an engineering department in Saudi Arabia is a different story.
Some staffers and students contend that the university — which prides itself on the number of female engineers it graduates — should steer clear of a kingdom where women’s rights are restricted and a fledgling engineering program would be open only to men…
A critic commented:
“A woman in Saudi Arabia got 200 lashes for being gang-raped,” he said, indignant that his school would consider a venture there. “What is this administration talking about?”
Sentenced for “un-Islamic behavior,” the woman was pardoned last year by King Abdullah after international outrage over the planned flogging. Still, Saudi women require a man’s permission to seek medical care, cannot drive or vote, and must be veiled in public.
Not to mention the Saudi court that just condemned a woman to death for witchcraft, putting that nation 292 years behind the UK.
But the Saudi plan is a step forward for women:
Over five years, Cal Poly would receive $5.9 million from the Saudi government to create an engineering curriculum, build labs and train teachers in Jubail, a sprawling oil center on the Persian Gulf. Only men would qualify to take or teach engineering classes, although the campus has separate classes in other disciplines for women.
But in our countries prior to WW2, engineering courses admitted only men.
And long after WW2 women engineers were a rarity – Mrs G was the first woman to graduate from her university with an electronics degree. And when she started work as the first female programmer and insisted on wearing pants suits, management had to grant her a special exception to their general rule that women (until then all secretarial staff) wear skirts or dresses.
So insisting Saudis immediately adopt our gender-neutrality is hypocritical, given the centuries it took us to achieve social consensus on this matter.
And it’s daft to criticize Islamic nations for their backwardness while denigrating their attempts – as with this project – to modernize their economies and societies.
If we don’t plan on perpetual war with Muslim nations, we should support them, warts and all, as they modernize at their own pace and by their own efforts.