Behind the High Walls of Saudi Women's Universities

Monday 3 October 201607:25 am
Nine months have passed since I graduated from university, but the memories down to the smallest details are still so vivid and haunting, from the words of poems heard in a lecture to the voices of professors and their revolutionary ideas. But not all the memories are happy ones. The limited freedoms we had access to in the classroom were often interrupted, on campus. A serene walk outside could easily be ruined by "supervisors", who are in charge of discipline and security on campus, shouting at the students for something as trivial as listening to music through a pair of earphones.

Bizarre surveillance

The supervisors, who I found out are hired on all women's colleges in the kingdom, would scour the premises for any signs of "violations". In fact, these security supervisors can be compared to the religious police, the infamous Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice. But one key difference is that they get their instructions from the deans or other administrators. The bizarre rules are only one of many aspects of the daily routine of surveillance and meddling that every Saudi female student must endure. Yet the issue rarely receives the same kind of attention and public debate as the activities of the religious police. It took the death of Amna Bawazeer, a student at King Saud University, to change this. Amna had a heart attack; she had survived for two hours before dying, as the male paramedics were banned from entering campus by the university administration. A huge uproar followed on twitter at the time.


Entering and leaving women's campuses requires special permission. Papers have to be filled, including for drivers dropping the women, and signed by fathers or other male "guardians". This was the case at King Faisal University. The same happened when exiting the premises. At the university, I had to show a special card to the security officer at the entrance before being allowed to leave. There were also restrictions on the hours we were allowed to leave; not before 9 in the morning at my university, and not before 11:30 or 12:30 in the afternoon at other universities, except with permission. Visitors are also never allowed in, unlike in men's universities.

Preempting sin

Many reasons are cited for these restrictions on female students, but most notably the need to avoid sin. The rationale for the limits on their freedom of movement and the intrusive surveillance of their lives is preemptive, that is, it is basically intended to prevent any opportunity for women to commit sin, rather than wait for them to commit sins and punish them afterwards. The first victim of this philosophy is the freedom of women, while no similar treatment is extended to men, who are left free to enjoy the freedom to move as long as they do so without mixing with the other sex.

Paparazzis and peeping toms

Although I am far from being a delinquent, I still ended up being forced to sign a total of three pledges at the university for violating what I call the "paparazzi complex". In short, there are strict laws enforced by women's universities against filming and taking pictures on campuses, or even sometimes bringing a mobile phone equipped with a camera. Under these laws, any woman student is treated as a potential paparazzi, or worse, a peeping tom. This is how I got into trouble: the first time because I brought a smartphone, which was confiscated; the second for bringing an iPad; and the third because I snapped a picture of an ad. When Malak, a student at another university, was caught taking a picture of ice cream on campus, the supervisor not only stopped her, but also inspected all the images on her phone even the ones taken off-campus and asked her to identify the people in them. After she signed a pledge, the supervisor contacted her mother to inform her that she was concerned because her daughter is seen wearing a short dress in one of the photos. There are many similar reports about such practices, suggesting it is systematic. Indeed, it is quite routine to inspect mobile phones in women's universities, and sometimes with no justification at all.

Dress codes

Sticking to the official dress code in the kingdom, usually the abaya and even the face veil, is not enough for some women's universities. Malak from Al-Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University, is often stopped on campus for wearing colored or embroidered abayas. Some universities may even hold disciplinary councils over these "violations", when forcing students to sign pledges is deemed insufficient. Some professors may even use grades and attendance records to punish violations of the dress code, as happened with both Malak and Samar (pseudonym), another student.

No 'gay tendencies' tolerated

Short hairstyles are also discouraged for girls at women's colleges. I remember how a supervisor once stopped me for a chat. She asked me, "Why did you cut your hair?" I answered while exchanging the same inquiring looks "I do not know… Why do people cut their hair normally?" One question led to another and this developed into a friendly chat, and before I left to join my class, she whispered to me: "Do not come without wearing make-up anymore, in order not to be misunderstood." I smiled, now that I had finally understood the secret behind those questions. Perhaps I was lucky that time the haircut did not lead to a new pledge-signing or even a disciplinary council. All those suspecting gazes made me pay attention more to the situation around me. There were frantic efforts to spot any sign of gay tendencies (signs that are culturally biased of course). The 'boyat', an Arabization of 'boys' used to refer to so-called tomboys, are seen as women who do not adhere to a stereotypical femininity in their behavior or dress code. They are linked with homosexuality on this basis. The campus supervisors thus set off on witch hunts to find alleged gay women and tomboys, to save students from "contamination".

Suspicious hugging

Other practices frowned upon involve the display of affection, even among women. Once two years ago, I was waiting outside the Dean’s office. Two women were waiting for their friend to come out of the office. We asked each other about the "charge" that had led us to the Dean’s office (mine had to do with bringing an iPad). Theirs began when a supervisor stopped them for what she considered "more than just a hug," and they were individually questioned one after the other. In fact, a “homosexuality” charge can lead to expulsion, following such interrogations. I did not forget this strange charge. So when I went back to college a few months ago, I went to the Security Supervisors’ office. I found the newly-appointed Head of Supervisors there. I told her that I was thinking of applying for the Supervisor job, but I did not know what the scope of my powers would be; I said "Let’s say I've seen a hug, must I stop the two students?" She nodded, and another supervisor added: "It depends on the type of hugs, is it a 'husband and wife' type of hug, for example?" This is but a small sample of what happens on women's university campuses, which are supposed to be free and independent spaces for growth and expression for young Saudi women. But what they are is human safety deposit boxes in which students are entitled to no privacy or freedom, let alone free expression.
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