At first, there was only vast desert land.
Then oil was discovered at its eastern coast, and its western coast was shedding its Ottoman veneer.
With the founding of the Saudi state in 1932, the foundations of a civil society were laid down.
Hordes of families turned their backs on the desert to move towards the nearest city, while mosques and their teachers timidly gathered the young to teach them.
Then, in the 1940s, the seeds of formal education were laid down with the establishment of the Directorate of Knowledge, to take charge of the administration of schools for boys.
Girls had been exempted from this step toward formal education.
Their dreams were hijacked by considerations of custom and tradition, and what remained of those dreams was crushed by fatwas (religious edicts). At the times, it seemed that Saudi females would forever be doomed to illiteracy.
However, about a decade after the founding of the Directorate of Knowledge, the first wave of girls started school.
In 1955, 30 girls were enrolled at Dar al-Hanan school in Jeddah, founded by Queen Faisal's wife, Queen Effat Al-Thunayan Al-Saud, who established the first school for girls in Saudi Arabia.
Queen Effat Demands Education
When the first Saudi state fell in 1818 at the hands of Ibrahim Pasha, the son of Muhammad Ali, the Ottoman ruler of Egypt at the time, Muhammad Ali Pasha exiled Abdullah bin Thunayan, Queen Effat’s grandfather, to Turkey, where he remained under house arrest.
Effat was born in Istanbul in 1915, and studied in Turkish schools. She witnessed the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the new republic by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
After the death of her father, she wrote to King Abdul Aziz, the founder of the third and current Saudi state, asking him for permission to perform the Hajj pilgrimage. King Abdul Aziz welcomed her request, assigning to his son and deputy in Hijaz, Prince Faisal—who would later became king in 1964—the task of receiving her.
Effat said in an interview that she met with King Faisal due to the family kinship, and both felt at peace with one another.
He was attracted by her personality, and they began conversing through a translator, until she learned Arabic. The relationship eventually culminated in marriage when she was aged 16.
Effat immersed herself in Saudi society, and learned the Saudi dialect. Education was the first issue to capture her attention.
One of her first questions is said to be: "Where are the schools? Where is the education?"
Education in Saudi Arabia and Neighboring Countries
During the time of Effat’s discussions over the schools, a popularized form of education was available in primary schools named kuttāb, albeit in primitive form. Girls in Hijaz were taught by a female teacher known as the faqīha, who were often assigned a room in homes to teach them.
Some Hijaz families were also known to open their homes to other girls to be educated, but there was no organized education or schools for girls.
Saudi Arabia had not been subjected to foreign occupation or mandate, unlike other Arab countries, and thus was not subjected to educational organization through schools or Christian missions.
The Anglican mission was the first founder of a school in Egypt in 1835. The type of education offered was compatible with the foreign communities that lived in Egypt at the time. It did not attract many Egyptians, because their families feared the impact of foreign education.
Fighting a regressive society and strict customs, Queen Effat of Saudi Arabia led the charge for girls' education.
Saudi women would have been doomed to illiteracy, were it not for the efforts of one woman.
In the Gulf states, Bahrain marked a precedent in the opening of the first school for girls, Al-Hidaya Al-Khalifiya in 1919, despite the objections of the conservative opposition forces at the time, who rejected the education of girls.
Following the declaration of the unification of Saudi Arabia in 1932, King Abdul Aziz met with the elders of Hijaz and expressed his approval of the education of girls.
The first step began in the 1940s when Effat decided to open a girls' education section alongside the boy’s education department at the Taif Model School.
Her husband Faysal agreed and the sections was indeed opened, and Effat enrolled her daughters. However, parents were reluctant to enroll their daughters amid severe social outcry. The section was closed after four years. Another was opened in Effat’s palace, and she supervised the education herself, biding her time until her next attempt.
Dar al-Hanan: Difficult Beginnings
The year 1955 proved to be the right time to make another attempt, this time in Jeddah.
Effat’s daughter, Princess Lulwa Al-Faisal, said in a speech that was later published in the Dar Al-Hanan book that she woke up one morning to noticeable activity in the house.
"My mother brought sewing machines and a variety of fabrics and embroidery tools, and sat with us and her friends, handcrafting the school uniforms and spreads and curtains that would decorate the building."
Effat changed her strategy in pushing for education, and offered her school as an orphanage, hoping to introduce education at a later stage.
Effat did not like the word "orphans" and thus decided to name it Dar al-Hanan. The community viewed it as a shelter for orphaned or needy girls, and so they had no fears that it would harm their daughters. Thereby, Effat decided to announce the enrollment of her daughters and the daughters of close families in Dar al-Hanan, to encourage others to do the same.
A total of 30 girls were enrolled in the first year, and the number jumped to 100 students in the second year, encouraging many parents, who asked to contribute to the fees of the school. A fee of 30 Saudi riyals was allocated as proceeds to the institution, which has maintained its work ever since the introduction of education.
A year after education was introduced, Dar al-Hanan became a full-fledged school, supervised by the Ministry of Education.
Five years later, the first batch of female students graduated from primary education, coinciding with the issuance of a royal decree approving public education for girls. Upon this decree, girls' schools were established in Riyadh, Mecca, and other cities and suburbs.
Dar al-Hanan continued its growth and decided to reabsorb its graduates from the primary stage, launching an elementary stage. The government assigned Dar al-Hanan the task of supervising all competency tests for private schools in 1963, which was followed by a secondary testing center.
Saudi Female Students
Dar al-Hanan entered a new phase when it was led by Cecile Rushdi, a woman of Egyptian origin, in the early 1960s.
At the time, the method of education was primitive, whereby teachers relied on the transfer of knowledge in whatever way they saw fit. Rushdie, who studied sociology in Egypt, sought to overhaul this system. She was the first to seek to introduce Saudi female teachers to the teaching profession.
She had experience in educational work and knowledge of government curricula, and tried to fill existing gaps with educational activities.
She established spaces that were not available to girls in Saudi schools or even in the community: science labs, drawing classes, the first gymnasium and the first school library, as well as scouting activities for girls.
A deal was struck with the British and French consulates to provide syllabi to teach both languages. The girls studied geology and the history of the European Renaissance, which was canceled after the school joined the formal educational system, which only taught the history of the Arab countries.
The staff at Dar al-Hanan was made up of teachers from neighboring Arab countries where education flourished, such as Egypt, Syria, and Palestine, as was the case in most of the new schools in the kingdom.
The administration at Dar al-Hanan felt that it was necessary to create a place for the Saudi women to work in the school, which became more feasible after the students graduated.
Thereby, Dar al-Hanan moved toward a new stage, training high school graduates in education to teach students in the earlier stages, to fill the huge deficit in teachers.
Fayza Kayal was one of the graduates of Dar al-Hanan. She decided to pursue a university education, then returned to Dar al-Hanan to work as a supervisor, and was later appointed as director of Dar Al-Hanan.
Rafef Fuad Zahran, a 1985 graduate of the school who manages the alumni society, recalls the era and the activities that filled the lives of students. She describes them as having been different from the rest of the schools in the country for girls, noting that Dar al-Hanan was a pioneering model in education in the country.
Steps Toward University Education
As demand for the school grew, it became necessary to move to a larger area.
In 1986, Dar al-Hanan moved to a new location: a land with an area of 89,000 square meters at a cost of 220 million Saudi riyals. Thus began one of its most prosperous eras. In 1988, Effat Al-Thunayan took the decision to establish the Center of Public Service and Continuing Education or vocational training, taking a step closer to her ultimate dream of establishing a college for higher education, as an extension of Dar al-Hanan schools.
The center was a safe haven for students who could not complete their university education, and offered programs and studies in specialties such as nursing, computer, English, and French, the latter under the supervision of the French Ministry of Education.
In 1999, it became a college named after its founder, the Queen Effat College for Girls, and thus became an accredited private university.
The End of an Era
With the spread of girls' education and the rising standard of living in Saudi Arabia in general, and in Jeddah in particular, many private, governmental, and international schools attracted a large number of female students, competing with the legacy of Dar al-Hanan.
By the mid-1990s, Jeddah was struck by heavy rainfall and thunderstorms, and sirens sounded from Dar Al-Hanan schools.
The building was engulfed by a large fire. The school was closed for a while and then resumed its activity, with a noticeable decrease in enrollment. The schools were completely closed in 2005, 50 years after establishment, and five years after the death of Queen Effat.
However, the college was reopened in 2009, three faculties and 13 departments, as well as postgraduate programs, focusing on engineering and business studies.
Today, the college is undertaking a new project that aims to transform it into a green, environmentally friendly school, with students, teachers, and even graduates participating in it.
Dar al-Hanan and Effat College graduated influential women in Jeddah and the Saudi society in general, who maintain ties to the school through the alumni society headed by Zahran.
"I am a graduate of 1985, and until now we coordinate cultural and recreational events in the alumni society to support the school, so that it remains a beacon in history,” Zahran tells Raseef22.