This past weekend, I had the honor of being the commencement speaker at Effat University, a private university for women in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It was hardly the staid affair I expected. Colorful klieg lights lit the way of arriving parents and dignitaries; forget “Pomp and Circumstance”—the more than two hundred graduates and faculty paraded in to a pulsating techno beat, while stage fog swirled to dramatic effect. The array of high-heeled shoes under the graduates’ sky-blue abayas was breathtaking—everything from six inch high, hot-pink platform wedges, to cowboy boots, to the latest snakeskin and metallic Manolo Blahniks.
What really impressed me was the energy and passion of the graduates. The president of the student government in her speech exhorted her fellow graduates—in a chant of “yes, we can”—to change the world around them. Married at the age of twenty, she also thanked her husband for not “putting her in a cage” and allowing her to pursue her dreams. (She exuded such determination that I can guess he didn’t have much of an alternative.) The alumni speaker, who had been the valedictorian of the class of 2006, spoke of her sense of accomplishment in getting her master’s degree in England and building her career, but noted that she was most proud of passing her driver’s test in the U.K. That elicited particular cheers from the crowd. (Despite last year’s renewed effort to eliminate the driving ban, Saudi women are still not allowed to drive.)
I was also impressed to see Effat graduating a quarter of its students from its College of Engineering, which it established in partnership with Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering. When I first visited Effat seven years ago, it was still in the early stages of establishing engineering as a degree, a first for women in Saudi Arabia. In my book Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East, I describe the challenges that Effat faced in introducing engineering for women. As Dr. Haifa Jamal al-Lail, the president of Effat explained then, “Those in the business community said to us, ‘Why teach the girls engineering? We won’t hire them.’ Others who were more sympathetic to our goal said, ‘Why don’t you call it something else, so people aren’t so against it?’ But I like the word engineering – I’m not hiding anything!” Her gamble paid off, and today Effat’s engineering graduates are enrolled in top post-graduate programs around the world and are sought-after employees in the Kingdom.
Effat was founded in the late 1990s by Queen Effat, wife of King Faisal, who ruled Saudi Arabia from 1964 to 1975 and set the country on a path of modernization. One of King Faisal’s most important reforms was to initiate public schooling for girls, a move that religious conservatives vehemently opposed. They argued that it would start the country down a slippery slope from which there was no return. They were right. Today, Saudi female literacy is over 80 percent and close to 100 percent among younger generations. When this year’s graduates were born in the early 1990s, only 10 percent of Saudi women attended college. Women now make up the majority of college students in the Kingdom, and like the young women I met graduating from Effat, many of them are determined to play a significant role in pushing their country forward. As these young women take their roles in society, the Saudi government will have an increasingly difficult time denying them their rights.