RAS AL-KHAIMAH—Women in Arab Gulf countries are enthusiastic about higher education, but seek it for the sake of personal fulfillment and not in the expectation of getting professional qualifications, according to a study presented at a conference here last month.
The study was conducted in 2016 by Woohyang Chloe Sim, a doctoral student at Waseda University, in Japan, and based on a survey of 161 women between the ages of 15 and 30 in the United Arab Emirates. Most of the women (91 percent) were students, the rest were either employed or unemployed, and three-quarters of them considered themselves either rich or relatively rich. Sim’s paper was presented at the Gulf Comparative Education Society Symposium 2018, organized by the al-Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, established by the ruler of Ras al-Khaimah, Sheikh Saud al-Qasimi. The al-Qasimi Foundation also supported Sim’s research.
Sim asked the women who took part in her study what they valued in their lives. Over all, she wrote, her interviewees believed that “spirituality is a very important or essential goal, followed by taking care of family, a stable life, contributing to society and being a good parent. On the other hand, they do not put much value on achieving professional success and expressing oneself in society.” The most commonly held goal (“integrating spirituality into my life”) was held by 56 percent of respondents, while the least commonly held goals were “writing original work” (16 percent) and “obtain[ing] recognition from my colleagues” (17 percent).
The women surveyed, she wrote, do not consider a higher-education degree at any level to be “a tool or ticket to greater participation in the labor market.” Nor did the women say that they entered higher education to attain or express social status. But the higher the degree, the more young women valued it: In a separate survey of 1,600 women from the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Saudi women in particular valued higher degrees: Over half of them (51 percent) aspired to a doctoral degree, while only 18 percent of Saudi women aspired to a bachelor’s degree as their terminal degree and 27 percent aspired to a master’s degree as their final degree.
As in many Arab countries, women in Gulf countries who have completed higher education are more likely to be unemployed than females who possess only a primary education or less, Sim said.
Most of the women Sim surveyed—over 80 percent—said they did not think a higher-education degree improved their prospects for marriage. Indeed, a master’s degree or a doctorate was seen as disadvantageous to a woman’s marriage prospects. “Guys don’t like women with a better degree than them,” one of the women surveyed said.
The numbers of students of both sexes enrolled in higher education in all Gulf countries in recent years has increased sharply. From 1990 to 2015, for example, higher-education enrollment in Saudi Arabia grew by 64 percent, according to the Saudi Ministry of Education.
The values reflected in Sim’s study contradict what appear to be the prevailing policies of Gulf governments, which tend to see higher education as a means of achieving economic development.
Natasha Ridge, author of Education and the Reverse Gender Divide in the Gulf States and executive director of the al-Qasimi Foundation, cautiously welcomed the results of this study. “If women are undertaking higher education for personal fulfilment it means that they are more likely to study a range of degrees and subject areas thus giving them a wider education than their male counterparts who concentrate in the more traditional subjects such as engineering, medicine and business,” she wrote in an e-mailed comment. “It also gives weight to the argument that education is about much more than getting a job, that it indeed adds to life satisfaction in and of itself.”
But Ridge said the study’s results may signal that women think that the “labor market doesn’t reward more or better education.”
“This will also mean,” she added, “that they will not necessarily choose degrees that are needed or in demand in the labor market, which may further disadvantage them.”
Evolving Gender Attitudes
In Saudi Arabia, the growth in the number of women in higher education connects closely with the evolution of the rights of women in society, according to a presentation given at the same conference by Elizabeth Bruce of Lehigh University, in the United States.
Bruce was a co-author of a study that asked 4,400 Saudi male and female university students what their current perspectives were “in relation to their awareness of, attitudes toward, and readiness for change in gender roles.”
“Women clearly dominate the university level in Saudi Arabia, with 37 percent of women reaching the tertiary level, compared to 23 percent of men,” the study reported. Women also get 79 percent of the Ph.D.’s awarded each year, the study found.
“The increase in women’s education has been accompanied by an increase in the average age of first marriage and a decrease in polygamy in Saudi Arabia,” the study said.
“Although few restrictions exist on the subjects women can study in university, there is often an expectation that women will focus on the social sciences as opposed to the natural sciences,” the study found. Ninety-three percent of female university graduates were found to have specialized in education and the humanities. Those specialties would limit the appeal of the graduates in the private sector, the study’s authors said.
The study noted that in Saudi Arabia women are only 29 percent of the labor force, despite the tripling of female employment between 1992 and 2010. But the survey found that male and female Saudi students are optimistic about improving gender equity and believe that “there will be substantial changes regarding women’s rights in the next five years.”
“Women’s aspirations to acquire additional qualifications and participate more fully in society, as reflected in the survey results, reflect a decisive new direction for the women’s movement in Saudi Arabia,” the study said.
“Though the pace may sometimes seem slow, the energy and enthusiasm are there.”