JEDDAH—Heading the first higher-education institution for women in Saudi Arabia, Effat University, comes with a heavy load of responsibility, but for its president, Haifa Reda Jamal Al-Lail, it has been the culmination of a long-held dream.
A public policy expert, Al-Lail never envisaged herself as an educator when she was studying in the 1980s, but as she leads young Saudi women into their future careers, she now sees it was a natural transition toward her dream of making a difference in the lives of Saudi women.
Al-Lail began her own studies with a bachelor’s degree in business administration at King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia before traveling to the United States, where she earned a Master of Public Administration and a Ph.D. in public policy at the University of Southern California.
Traveling with the support of her husband beside her enabled her to venture into a new world, where she dreamed of bringing long-awaited social change to Saudi women.
“At that time, there were limited choices for females in Saudi Arabia and my goal was really to be a change agent,” she said.
She wanted changes like allowing a woman “to open her own business without having to go under her sponsor, which is her father or her brother,” for example. She wanted women “to be able to leave the country without a guardian having to give her permission.”
Empowering Women With Education
But at the root of these wishes, she says, was the desire to empower women with education, which “really freed her.”
“We need education to free the person from himself, not only from others and from the laws and regulations, but also from himself, because once you get the education in your hand and your mind, then the change really comes easily. If you don’t understand new ideas, then you are really the prisoner of old ideas. So education is lifelong learning. It’s really an important goal in my life and that’s what I wanted always to instill in my students.”
“We need education to free the person from himself, not only from others and from the laws and regulations, but also from himself, because once you get the education in your hand and your mind, then the change really comes easily.”Haifa Reda Jamal Al-Lail
She began her career as an assistant professor at King Abdulaziz University and rose to become head of the public administration department and dean of the women’s division—experiences that gave her a first-hand understanding of the higher-education system and its challenges.
But it wasn’t until the late 1990s, when the first female college was being established and Al-Lail joined as a consultant, that she began to live out her dream and feel she was part of something “huge and historic.”
To incentivize women to enroll, the government introduced stipends, which continue until today, with students receiving $300 per month during their studies. This helped overcome the resistance from families reluctant to send daughters to education, Al-Lail recalls, unlike today, when competition for places is huge, and in many government institutions demand far outweighs capacity.
From a college with two departments and only 37 students, Effat has now grown to into a university with around 1,000 students across a range of disciplines as diverse as engineering and architecture.
Effat opened doors to women who previously could not access higher education, Al-Lail says, and now, 70 per cent of its graduates are now employed in international companies like Ford and Siemens, in mixed-gender workplaces.
Gradual Expansion of Women’s Rights
Al-Lail became dean of the new institution in 2000 and president of Effat University in 2009, when it achieved university status.
It has not been an easy road. Initially, placing female students in internships was challenging because of laws prohibiting women in the workplace. “It was very hard for me to open these doors” to internships where female students could get some training, Al-Lail said. “Society wasn’t really ready to do that.”
But under reforms that started under King Abdullah and sped up after King Salman ordered a review of the laws restricting women’s freedoms, huge changes have been underway, she added. (See a related article, “Crown Prince Pushes Change in Saudi Higher Education.”)
Step by step, things changed. When women first began working, they had separate work spaces in companies and used different entrances, to maintain segregation. But now, co-working has become the norm.
“The ceiling for women is not what it was. Women have voices in some of the major governing councils, and almost 30 percent of the parliament members are female.”Haifa Reda Jamal Al-Lail
“The important thing here is that you see them really working side by side with men, and it’s very relaxed,” Al-Lail said. “… You can find a lot of women really working together with men, with no fear of really having anything happen to them. So the law is supporting that in one way or another.”
Saudi Arabia is often misrepresented internationally, she explains. Women are far more involved in the world of work and politics than many realize, being present on boards of directors, and having opportunities far greater than many believe.
“The ceiling for women is not what it was,” Al-Lail said. Women have voices in some of the major governing councils, “and almost 30 percent of the parliament members are female,” she said.
A Leader Who Wears Many Hats
Al-Lail realizes that her role in this slowly unfolding process of granting more freedom to women is critical.
More than simply the president of a university, she sees herself as a mother to all under her wing, wearing the hat of counselor as much as educator. She acts as a voice for Saudi women, speaking at regional and global events like the World Economic Forum.
And while it is not the public policy changing role she once imagined, perhaps her role now is much more important.
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“I’m the mother for any student, any young female that wants to be here,” she said. “If you’re an educational leader, you cannot really only say I’m academician and I’m a researcher. You have to be ready to do some counselling.”
Haifaa M. Mussallam, a student, agrees that as a counselor, mother figure, and role model, Al-Lail serves a vital role for young Saudi women.
“Dr. Haifa is definitely a leader I look up to, not only for her innovation and long-term visions for the university but also in how caring she is towards her students,” Mussallam said. “She treats each of us as her own, which is rarely seen by women in a strong position such as herself. She is a woman I look up to, for her poise, intelligence and fairness in treatment.”