Education plays an important role in equalization of the society. Through education, societies that embraced explicit discrimination and isolation have become integrated once more, and the developmental projects are ongoing. Education is also credited in helping to open up once closed and carefully knit societies to the entire world through the interaction of cultural and traditional practices. The cultural practice of a given society is exposed to the outside world through learning, and both the society and the world tend to benefit from the cultural interaction. Nevertheless, despite the numerous benefits that are accrued as a result of internationalization of education, some education systems have remained closed up to the cultural and traditional practices that have continued to perpetuate the social, economic, and political inequalities among their people. Through hegemonic education systems, some countries have continued to reinforce an education system that does not emphasize the importance of the equal distribution of resources among their people and equal access to various development opportunities between men and women. Such societies still perpetuate education systems that do not respect other traditional practices, such as religion and leadership. It is evident that, for a long period of time, such education systems have failed to develop features and institutions that make an attempt for breakaway that is difficult to achieve. This paper makes a critical analysis of the Saudi Arabia educational system to determine the conditions that create and maintain a social stratification and disproportionality in the society. The paper also explores ways through which the inequality is constructed in the society and how it functions in social institutions, and how schools can become equitable and places for all students to learn.
Saudi Arabia Educational System
The Saudi Arabia education system is founded on the general principles that guide the administration of learning from the pre-primary level to the university. According to the National Office of Overseas Recognition (2004), the general principles include enabling students to have a correct and comprehensive grasp of the Islamic teachings besides inculcating them into ambassadors of the Islamic faith. The system also aims at enabling students to develop values, ideals, and teachings of Islam through equipping them with knowledge and skills to this effect. Furthermore, the general goal of education in Saudi Arabia is to enable students to develop their social and economic skills with a view of engaging them into the constructive activities as a way of building their nation. However, despite the seemingly generalized approach to education, the main area that is given an emphasis by various authorities that control education at different levels is the inculcation of the Islamic teaching as conceived in the Wahhabi doctrines.
The institutionalization of education in the Saudi Arabia together with its close association with the Islamic religion continues to exacerbate inequality both internally amongst the Saudis themselves and externally with the international students (Mahmood, 2005). It happens so because the foundational curriculum that children in Saudi Arabia get to learn has been pinpointed by many international observers as the medieval information that is aiming at sowing the seed of interreligious conflicts, especially with the emphasis that Islam is the only true religion and other people who do not believe in Islam are atheists deserving to be killed.
According to the Saudi Arabia Ministry of Education (2007), the Ten Year Strategic Plan starting 2004-2014 aims at achieving outlined goals, such as producing a new generation of youth, both male and female, that embodies the Islamic values in their theoretical and practical endeavors. Furthermore, the education system in the country also aims at preparing students to face the international competition in sciences and technical fields by exposing them to the international curriculum, such as those in other countries. This has seen the government sent thousands of students under government scholarships through various institutions to study in universities in western countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom. This scholarship programs are a major source of inequality in the development of education in the country because those students who cannot access the scholarship remain with what Iqbal (2001) described as a medieval form of education that polarizes students against other religions while seeking to entrench the monarchical teachings with the view of keeping the royal leadership in place.
The Saudi education system provides opportunities for Saudis to learn various skills and knowledge that help them to develop their country. The government of Saudi Arabia provides guidelines and rules that help guide the school curriculum at all learning levels. The governance through different jurisdictions, such as the Ministry of Education and the General Organization for Technical Education and Vocational Training, provide scholarship funds to students both male and female to learn and acquire skills in social sciences, medicine, engineering, and other disciplines (Gaad, 2010). The Supreme Committee for Educational Policy is the overall authority that oversees all the learning and education matters in the country. The authority was established in 1963 with the aim of formulating policies that guide the education curriculum in schools as well as ensuring that students get to learn about the Islamic principles according to the Wahhabi doctrines.
As envisaged under the Ministry of Education in Saudi Arabia, education plays a major role in the political, economic and social development of the country. The educational system is based on two major principles: that of developing the necessary human resources by educating and training of the people of Saudi Arabia and establishing a all-inclusive economic infrastructure that provides a facilitative environment for the acquisition of necessary skills and knowledge among the people of Saudi Arabia.
This philosophy was based on two major principles: 1) developing needed human resources through education and training, and 2) building a comprehensive economic infrastructure.
According to Doumato (2010), one major outstanding feature about the Saudi education system is the emphasis on Islamic education. Islam is taught at all levels starting with primary education to the university level. This emphasis is guided and enhanced by the governmental guidelines that require all schools to teach students on the Islamic principles. However, the education system in the country continues to produce institutional and structural inequality and diversity in the public sector where the access to public jobs is still skewed with more women encouraged to take up educational professions as opposed to men who are encouraged to take law, medicine, engineering, and others. This structural inequality is perpetuated by the Islamic principles that establish a separation between men and women.
The general approach to educational matters in Saudi Arabia has contributed to the current situation of inequality amongst people in terms of the economic and social development. As outlined by Dawson (2012), even though the rate of literacy among the Saudis is higher compared to other Islamic nations and some of the Western countries, the development in the country has depended on the skills and knowledge from its own people because it does not allow them to open up to the international knowledge, which is considered unnecessary in many cases. The reinforcement and regular evaluation of textbooks from pre-primary level to the university have meant that the government continues to control and censor all information that the Saudi institutions teach to their students. The updates and evaluation are based on the new development which is perceived by governmental institutions as worth of including or removing from the textbooks with the final aim being to ensure that the students continue to be trapped in the old age teachings of the Wahhabi doctrines.
Nevertheless, one notable milestone in the education system in Saudi Arabia is the teaching of the English language alongside Arabic. English is considered a communicative language that students are expected to use in interacting with people from other countries. The establishment of English learning in the institutions in the country is underpinned on the premise that English as an international language is playing a crucial role in ensuring that the Saudi students are at par with students from other countries, especially in West where English is their first language. Moreover, the teaching and use of the foreign language in learning in schools also creates a venue for the introduction and continuation of the social and economic inequality among the citizens of the country because those who do not have English as their second language are given lesser priority when it comes to the government employment of international servants in the various embassies spread across the world. Unintentionally, the education system of the country has been focusing on developing a teacher base curriculum that can accommodate as many women as possible because women are not expected to work in certain fields that are only considered a domain of the men (Dawson, 2012).
As such, the education system for women colleges has their focus on the socio-cultural studies that are intended to enable them to be taught how to teach instead of focusing on technical and methodological expositions. The two are instead emphasized in all inclusive institutions of learning where the majority of men fill up the available vacancies before they can trickle down to women. Cordesman (2001) argued that a concerted overlook on the role of English as a second language of learning and the general second language acquisition process, as well as the teaching skills and knowledge in many women colleges are in favor of the role of socio-cultural factors and local contexts in which teachers work. In contrast to what Connell (2007) proposed, the learning of foreign language in Saudi Arabia education system is seen in the intensity of its inclusion in most of the learning levels, thus underpinning the vital role that language, both Arabic and English, play in the institutionalization of learning in the country. Additionally, the stucturalization of education in the country and the establishment of different learning levels also enable different students’ access to education in various fields at higher levels of learning.
According to Charrad (2007), Saudi Arabia education was based on a segregation system, which is largely influenced by sex and a social status. The separated units of education are administered by different authorities. It involves the general education for boys, education specifically meant for girls, and the traditional Islamic education mainly for boys. The administration of the general education for boys is under the management of the Ministry of Education, which was established in 1952; while the General Presidency for Girls’ Education controls the education for girls. Even though the annual examinations are the same for both male and female students, the segregation that is brought about as a result of different administration entities between boys’ schools and girls’ schools is normally evident in the final results where most boys qualify for technical courses at the university level while women end up in the education sector. It is the reason why there are a higher number of women teachers than male ones. This trade off is offset in the public sector where men are preferred as government employed compared to women. Indeed, Saudi Arabia does not encourage employing women as government officials, and it is only until recently that a woman became the deputy minister in the ministry of education, highlighting the kind of inequality that is rampant in the access to public jobs despite men and women having almost similar qualifications (Bryan, 2012).
A different feature of the Saudi Arabia education system is the training of boys into becoming members of the religious clergy; while girls are taught about becoming homemakers through the home economics subjects. The separation of boys and girls into religious identification has meant that the Saudi Arabia leadership continues to place a higher priority on a boy child despite the fact that everyone, not taking into consideration their gender, is entitled to access reliable and valid education that will help them contribute to the development of the country (Blanchard, 2007).
The teaching of Islamic education to boys only at some given level is a way of propagating the patriarchic society that characterizes most Islamic nations. The undermining of women and the continued view of women as being secondary to men is an element that is propagated by the education system that children have to go through during their learning right from the pre-primary education (BBC News, 2010). A further source of the structural inequality is the inclusion of religious studies at all levels of learning, and this forces other people with a different religion to learn about religion not out of their choice but as a matter of obligation. The teaching of religious studies also parallels the secular system even though the emphasis is placed on the religious studies, thus making it difficult for students to focus on other important subjects that can allow them be competitive on the international arena.
After the World War II the establishment of secular schools with a Western-oriented culture ended that popular traditional approach where Islamic teachings had been used as the basis of education. Nonetheless, a good portion of the new set of courses maintained the religious outlook, with the government reviewing textbooks on a regular basis to ensure that it reflects the very knowledge that the kingdom wanted people to learn. Memorizing, interpreting and comprehension of the Quran formed the basis of the education system that students get to teach (Blanchard, 2007). The making of Islamic studies as a compulsory subject in the university also continues to contribute to the inequality and disparity in the way of learning amongst students as those who belong to different religions have no option but to study the religious issues as directed by the government.
However, the government has heavily subsidized education in the country, thus enabling as many people as possible to access formal education. The rate of literacy is the highest in the country amongst other Arab countries, especially with the introduction of learning among the adult people who did not access education in their childhood. The country spends over 4 percent of its annual budget on education with all students receiving a monthly stipend from the government. However, this creates an atmosphere where the government is in control of whatever the students learn, thus undermining the independence of education in the country. The government also provides private schools with textbooks as a way of ensuring that the schools do not deviate from the prescribed syllabus and teach students knowledge and skills that can be used against the government doctrines (British Council, 1996).
How Inequality is Constructed in the Society
Saudi Arabia is one of the heavily regulated societies when it comes to the association of men and women. The segregation of women has created a web whereby women are prevented from accessing equal opportunities and equal rights with men. Even though the education system allows women to access educational facilities just as much as their male counterparts, some statistics indicate that there are more women enrolled in colleges than men, the underlying social values and practices prevent them from accessing important services (Al-Ahmed, 2010). Until recently, women in Saudi Arabia were required to hire a male manager for them to own a personal business. In addition, they were also required to be accompanied by a male relative in every public places where they went to. This made it difficult for them to access vital services, such as bank loans and independent education, because the male relative would always keep a watchful eye on them.
According to Al-Ahmed (2010), the inequality that exists within Saudi Arabia is not so much a factor of religious values but rather of social and traditional practices that entrenched patriarchal practices which undermine the dignity of a woman. The social stratification follows this line as families try to maintain their dignity by punishing their girl children with harsher measures as opposed to the boys who commit the same mistake. In some horrifying incidences, male members of a family can conspire to kill their own daughter or female member whenever they feel that that person has brought dishonor to the family. Such practices prevent the development and modernization of the Saudi Arabia as a nation despite the big strides that the country has taken in terms of providing equal access to education for boys and girls.
The current statistics indicate that more females than male are going to schools. However, this also points to the creation of a system whereby the child is always seen as the ultimate inheritor to the family’s property. The girl child is taught that all what belongs to the family will only be shared among the male children. As such, this practice propagates the boy bias that is closely practiced by the male members of the society beating their male children against the female. The practice is followed at the family level, and therefore, the government can only play a peripheral role in trying to implement laws that protect the rights of women in the country. This is unlikely going to produce results in the near future as the government has still been segregating employees in terms of their gender. The government is seen to play an inactive role by supporting institutions that help the girls through learning and access to educational facilities. The same government employs people in a discriminatory and segregation manner where jobs for women may include nursing and education while men are expected to work in technical fields.
As Al Shaer (2007) argued the role of education in enlightening a heavily conservative society like Saudi Arabia is very significant. The increased number of women in the education sector is likely going to bring about a change in the traditional and social practices that creates and nourishes inequality in Saudi Arabia. Ultimately, a large number of women who are educated are likely going to seek for redress in their human and fundamental rights. But they still face an uphill as the country’s resources are in the hands of men who are custodians of the traditional practices. Religious teachings through such practices reinforce the concept of social stratification in terms of associations and contacts that people make in the public places. The government also has a role in preserving the status quo. It also needs to perpetuate the kingdom leadership where the country’s leaders are drawn from the same family. Realizing that education played a crucial role in enlightening the society, the government has established ways that different institutions are supposed to review the kind of curriculum and the practices that the students engage in schools to ensure that it continues to hold onto power. The opening up of the Saudi Arabian society will, thus, require concerted efforts from the stakeholder in human rights and gender equality to help people who are faced with challenges of the inequality to address the issue.
According to Ramady (2010), “the gender inequality is built into the Saudi Arabia’s governmental and social structures and is integral to the country’s state-supported interpretation of Islam”. Even though the religion plays a crucial role in the final equality or inequality status in Saudi Arabia, political annihilation and inaction have been on the forefront in championing for denial of equal rights in the public places for women. As argued by Ramady (2010), it is not only the Wahhabism doctrines that have led to the existence of the inequality in the country. Other factors, such as religious views and traditional practices that propagate the segregation and oppression of women in the country, also play a role in the inequality that exists in the country. Nevertheless, the opening up of learning opportunities for children in the country and the general support that the current government is giving to girl students is expected to ease on the elements that have kept some groups in the country under the control of the minority group in political leadership. It has also given the opportunity for enactment of laws that are going to entrench the rights of segregated groups in the society (Bhabha, 2006).
As noted by Ramady (2010), there are no laws in Saudi Arabia that define the age of marriage in legal terms for women. As such, cases of girl children being married to much older men have been reported in many rural areas of the country. Such a marriage is normally blessed by male family members who view it as a source of income to their family. The older men are usually wealthy people who use their money to buy young girls as wives. However, with the recent efforts to provide education to all children, the number of girl children who are married off at an early stage has drastically reduced. The data held by the United Nations in 2007 indicated that 4 percent of girls aged between 15-18 years were married, divorced, or widowed in Saudi Arabia despite the banning of such practices by the religious authority 2005 (Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission to the United States, 2008).
This is a high figure given the age of those girls. Some of the contributing factors to the many cases of forced marriage of young girls include the lack of inclusion of women in decision making in the family. The men take the role of making decisions concerning their female family members, including the decision on when and whom to marry their children. The formal permission is supposed to come from the agreement between the male members of the two families involved in the marriage. Marrying from outside requires that one gets the permission from the Ministry of Interior which puts the state in direct control of the family matters and traditional practices that have been described as barbaric and medieval (Pant, A2009). Moreover, the issue of marriage to a foreigner with the Saudi woman is considered a big concern as the political and religious class does not expect one of their own female to get married to strangers from outside whose religious practices have not been satisfied or who do not agree with the Wahhabism doctrines (Schein, 2005).
The Role of Schools in Creation of the Equitable and Just Environment
Schools play a big role in the enlightenment of a society. With the current globalization and integration of societies, schools have been on the forefront in bringing students up to date with the happenings in other societies that can contribute to the development of their society (Stromquist & Monkman, 2000). In schools, students get to learn about the cultures and practices of other societies and advancement in human rights and justice that have been attained by others elsewhere. Furthermore, schools enable students to become critical thinkers and allow them to make decisions and take steps based on the facts that they get to learn about other people. It is through schools that people from different religious background can interact and exchange ideas and views concerning social, political and economic challenges that are facing many societies today. This, therefore, means that schools have a role in shaping the kind of generation the society expects to have (Brembeck & Hill, 1999; Carter, 1999). The introduction of students at an early age can provide them with an opportunity to make wise decisions that regard the use of resources and the environmental preservation that might be important in the development of the society.
According to United Nations Human Rights Council (2009), schools in Saudi Arabia are heavily monitored by the government and are to use materials, such as textbooks, that are provided by the government. This, therefore, removes the free will thinking that can be developed in a student throughout their lives. The use of government supported institutions and funds in learning remove the ultimate autonomy and independent thinking that students might develop in their learning and, therefore, the probability of having a wholesome kind of society that is able to think and provide solutions to some of the challenges that are facing them remains very slim (Farsy, 1994). People are supposed to become creative and innovative in their thinking that can provide them with equal opportunities to make their contributions in the provision of solutions to existing challenges.
As argued by Stromquist & Monkman (2000), teachers also have a role in teaching their students about the existing laws and the human rights abuses that are observed in the society. They can also teach them about social justice and the crimes that ensure when social justice system does not provide protection to such challenges. A teacher should play a role in deciding what the kind of education students are going to have and should not leave such practices to the political and religious class that has vested interests in the development of the society. A manipulated education system taught in schools will only worsen up the matter the moment the student realize that kind of education they were going through was only meant to perpetuate some doctrinal premises for the purposes of political gains.
Through schools, students can also get to interact with other cultural and traditional practices with a view of getting to learn through comparison. It is important because it will be helpful in the decision about the goodness or the badness of a given traditional practice that might be barbaric but still popular within a given society. The interchange in diverging religious views can be held through schools as students learn and interact with people from different cultures or religions and get to learn from them. It is also possible that such students can also teach something new to the group that they are interacting with in schools (Slethaug, 2007).
The government can also help in the elimination of segregation and separation in the country by establishing mixed schools as well as giving students an opportunity to interact in the freer environment where they can learn from each other (Gender Index, 2012). The elimination of traditional practices that hinder or put a barrier between men and women in the country can be done through schools by allowing students to intermingle and to continue with the interaction dialogue on issues that are based on the traditional practices. The government can also provide equality in the access of jobs by allowing women who have graduated from various schools to hold political positions and participate in public places without the restrictions that are put in place. According to Al-Ahmed (2010), the spreading and construction of more schools in the rural areas can be a major step in the realization of the overall literacy level in the country. When schools are spread and distributed equally across the country, many people are likely to access the education since schools will be at their doorstep. The government and other private institutions have a role in ensuring that the schools are easily accessible by all children in the rural areas to ensure that such children are not denied the opportunity of accessing quality and independent schooling that is required in the modern international arena. The provision of school facilities in the rural areas will enable students to focus more on their learning even as they get to interact and access new information that is vital in their social and economic development.
According to Gender Index (2012), most teachers in the Saudi Arabia are female. This is caused by the fact that the government policies mostly allow women to become teachers and nurses. However, if well utilized, it can be a good opportunity for female teachers to inculcate a sense of responsibility amongst their female and male students so that they can start speaking about the emancipation of women and the introduction of equal access to government jobs. The teachers also can participate in teaching sound religion that respects other religions while allowing students to develop a sense of responsibility in protecting the prescribed religion.
However, there is also the need for a system where students are given an opportunity to choose whether they want to pursue religious studies in higher education such as at the university level instead of making the whole issue of religious studies a compulsory issue. This approach can easily turn into a revolt as some students may develop curiosity on the need of learning about their other religions (Mahmood, 2005). The inculcation of freedom of learning will be important in enabling a free learning environment where every student has a chance to get decent education that can bring benefits in the future. The development in the international relations and communication is also important because the students are not expected to live in isolation, but they are expected to continue contributing to the development of technical and environmental awareness with their focus on the final integration at all levels in the country and across the borders.
Schools also provide a good environment where students can share about the kind of inequality that exists in the society, such as divorce, inheritance, and boy biasness among others (Montgomery, 2010). Much of the injustices are a result of lack of awareness and enlightenment to the society. The female teachers might fear the general system of political leadership that places heavy fines on women who are accused of some mistakes. Applying certain approaches, it is possible for women to start speaking up for their rights in the country because they are the ones who teach the students, the future generation of the country.
The addressing and elimination of segregation and discrimination perpetuated through oppressive traditional and cultural practices can be eliminated through schools by providing an opportunity for children to be aware of the existence of such practices (Walker & Dimmock, 2005). The most essential issue is the creation of an enabling environment that do not only emphasize on the memorization and interpretation of the Quran while keeping other members of the society in oppression. It is important that stakeholders put the whole issue of using schools as a breeding ground to start a change in the education system that will allow the removal of obstacles that hinder the equal development between men and women in the society.
From the above analysis, it is evident that education plays an important role in helping to open up a normally conservative society. The Saudi Arabian government under the leadership of KingFahd Bin Abdul Aziz Al has provided mechanisms that ensure that both male and female members of the society have equal access to education. However, the initiative still faces challenges from the conservative leadership that still adheres to the traditional practices that restrict the movement of girls and women in the country. The inculcation of Islamic studies in each and every level of learning right from the pre-primary level to the university also aims at giving a strong hold of the government onto the country’s leadership even though such practices precludes the Saudis from being competitive as they look for the international jobs with other internationals. The use of Islamic values also enchants the level of education accession to the Saudis because, according to the government policy, all its students must learn first with a view of becoming the ambassadors of Islamic messages. Thus, it becomes the first point of reference as students do not only focus on acquiring vital skills and knowledge needed in the social and economic development in the country. Instead, too much attention is given to the religious studies guarded with heavily entrenched family practices that promote the Wahhabi doctrines.
The school provides a good environment for students of both sexes to access quality education and be able to make independent decisions with regard to their future jobs. As such, schools need to focus on the current needs in the social, political and economic development that can help in propelling the country ahead in terms of development, especially with the recent economic slowdown that reduced the purchasing power of some partner countries. Saudi Arabia heavily depends on the exportation of petroleum products, but the country also needs to develop its human resource through sound education system that enhances respect to other traditional practices and religion while at the same time that the need for ensuring that its citizens have equal access to human rights and freedom is strictly observed by the government. This should also be done by the traditional families. The role of education is to ensure that all children in the country can independently access educational facilities and are given equal opportunities in accessing government and private jobs. The school can achieve this goal if the government gives stakeholders a chance to formulate and establish a curriculum that reflects the contemporary international scene without necessarily undermining the Islamic religious values.
Finally, the education system in Saudi Arabia plays a crucial role in the development of human resources. It has, thus, helped develop the social and economic status of the country. Despite the existing challenges that the system of education faces, it can be argued that the kind of inequality observed in the country is based more on political and religious views than the education system in place. The women in the country have been empowered in terms of knowledge and skills, but the traditional and religious practices continue to hold them back. Progressiveness and emancipation of the oppressed groups in the country will hopefully be delivered through the learning and development in the cultural and social practices that inhibit the removal of the inequality between men and women in the country.