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Saudi Arabia opens world's largest university for women

Emine Saner

The world's largest women-only university was opened barely two weeks ago by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Situated on the outskirts of the capital, Riyadh, the Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University is ambitious — it has the capacity for 50,000 students and will improve women's access to courses such as business and science. It has a teaching hospital, laboratories and libraries.

Which is all very nice (if you forget for the moment the kingdom's strict sex-segregation rules). The question is, what happens to these women after they graduate?

Many Saudi women are already well-educated, but women make up less than 15 per cent of the labour force — and earn far less than men. “We would need to assess whether this new facility will open up more male-dominated fields to women,” says Nadya Khalife, from Human Rights Watch. The World Economic Forum global gender gap report in 2010 ranked Saudi Arabia 129 out of 134 countries, and the only country to score a zero for female political empowerment; in March, it was announced that the ban on Saudi women voting would continue. Saudi women are forced to live under the control of a male guardian, usually a father or husband, without whose authority they cannot get a job, travel or open a bank account. They cannot leave the house alone or without wearing the niqab, and are banned from driving a car.

“While the opening of a large university is an indication of Saudi's interest in educating women, it has to do much more to lift restriction on women's employment, says Khalife”

— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011

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