RIYADH: Saudi Arabia may have embarked on an ambitious program of social and religious modernization, but in many ways the reforms hark back to the 1960s and 1970s — an era when people were culturally conservative, but also tolerant of different religions and cultures. Despite the traditional nature of Saudi society at that time, the country was progressing and evolving smoothly in line with much of the world.
However, a series of events in the 1970s brought progress in the Kingdom to a halt, with major social changes threatening tolerance and a moderate religious stance, and even overturning core teachings in schools and higher learning institutions.
The Iranian revolution in February 1979 and subsequent establishment of a hard-line Islamic government in Tehran, as well as militant Juhayman Al-Otaibi’s failed uprising against the Saudi government in November that year, were key factors in the change.
Rising conservative sentiment in the region and fears of further unrest in the Kingdom had a dramatic effect on Saudi society, especially on women and education, as Amani Hamdan, an associate professor at Al-Imam Abdulrahman Bin Faisal University, in Dammam, outlined in a 2005 study, “Women and Education in Saudi Arabia: Challenges and Achievements.”
Saudi Arabia was “a complex society eager to discover and enjoy the fruits of advancement, but at the same time determined to preserve its religious and cultural traditions,” she wrote.
“The balance between the two has been difficult to maintain, especially with regards to women’s professional space.”
Education for girls was introduced six decades after it began for boys. In the 1960s, King Faisal and his wife Princess Effat encouraged female education and women’s right to achieve their goals. Yet King Faisal struggled initially to convince conservative elements in society which opposed women’s education.
Fayga Redwan, a retired school principal, recalls teaching in the 1960s and 1970s, and said that the school curriculum encouraged tolerance and moderation, especially on Islamic topics.
“General subjects such as math, science and social studies were taught by foreign teachers from Syria, Palestine, Iraq and Egypt along with Islamic subjects such as Qur’an, fiqh (jurisprudence) and hadith (collections of the Prophet’s sayings),” she told Arab News.
“They were lenient in the sense that lessons were intended to offer a better understanding of our religion and the way it could enhance our lives. Teachers were never overbearing and didn’t veer off-track to apply their beliefs (if they were ultra-conservative).”
“We weren’t forced to memorize hundreds of the Prophet’s sayings. Instead, we were expected to comprehend the messages. Comprehension was a key factor in all our subjects, but that changed in later years when curriculums were reformed,” she said.
However, the growing influence of ultra-conservative clerics on daily life was quickly felt in schools, where religion became the main focus, dominating the education system at the expense of other subjects. Science, math and language teachers became religious preachers in their own classrooms.
The school system was divided along gender lines with the General Presidency for Girls’ Education heavily influenced by conservative religious scholars, and the Ministry of Education for boys focusing on science subjects.
This was to ensure that women’s education did not deviate from its original purpose “of making women good wives and mothers, and preparing them for ‘acceptable’ jobs such as teaching and nursing,” Hamdan wrote.
Meanwhile, teachers began intimidating young female students, using fear to warn them of the consequences of failing to perform religious rituals.
“Girls’ schools were surrounded by high walls and security screens. Each school, college or university was assigned at least two men, usually in their 50s or 60s, who were responsible for checking the identity of those who entered the school, and generally watched over the girls inside the school until they were picked up by their fathers or brothers,” she said.
Former student Reema Alwshaiqer said that she had been a victim of this fear. “My religion teacher used to tell stories about hell and torture, telling us that if we didn’t cover our hands with gloves and our feet with socks when we went out, we would burn in hell from our toes to our heads,” she said.
By contrast, in the 1970s, many private boys’ schools had language classes, physical education, swimming, football, tennis, music and theater, while private girls’ schools also offered physical education, and French and English language classes.
Families in the 1960s and 1970s understood the importance of education and sent their daughters to school despite criticism from religious clerics.
Manal Al-Harbi, a former high school teacher, said: “The school system was different from one city to another. I experienced first grade in Riyadh, where wearing a hijab was mandatory for older students. I was so afraid of the 50-year-old guard who told older students to cover their hair that I started to wear a hijab even inside the school.”
Al-Harbi later attended elementary school in Madinah and loved her school uniform. “Students used to wear a light gray two-piece uniform, pants and a long top with a belt. It was so comfortable. However, intermediate and secondary students used to wear long dresses with sleeves.” “Most of the teachers were Saudi, but we also had foreign teachers, mainly from Egypt, Syria and Iraq,” she added. During the 1970s there were no women’s universities in Madinah. “Most girls used to enrol in King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah and stay in the female dorms. The university used to entertain the girls who lived on campus by taking them to the beach with their female friends, professors and supervisors.”
Saudi graduates could also enrol in local universities or apply for government scholarships abroad, mainly to the US, which had more than 11,000 Saudi scholarship students at one time.
Many Saudis today look back on the 1970s as “the good old days.” Boys had more options when choosing college majors, and more job opportunities in both the private and public sectors.
Saud Al-Shalhoub, former general assistant auditor at the Saudi Electricity Company, told Arab News that teaching standards at Saudi universities at that time were advanced.
“I graduated from King Saud University, which was called Riyadh University, with a double major in accounting and business management. When I decided to pursue my master’s degree, a lot of universities that I applied for abroad waived many courses, and I completed my master’s within a year.” After graduating, Al-Shalhoub found many job opportunities in Saudi Arabia. “That would be difficult nowadays,” he said.