City of Women: No Men Allowed in Saudi Arabia’s Newest University

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Foreign workers construct Princess Noora University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, June 11, 2011. (Photo: Lynsey Addario for TIME Magazine)

Saudi Arabia’s largest university for women is, for the moment, a universe of men. Laborers from Pakistan, India, and Syria crawl over the near-finished classrooms and lecture halls, polishing marble and fine tuning light fixtures. In the state-of-the-art library, technicians from Lebanon are putting the final touches on a vast robotic book delivery system that can direct any one of five million books in the stacks to dedicated portals. Out front, Sri Lankan laborers lay tiles around a massive fountain and reflecting pool.  But in two months, when Princess Noora Bint Abdulrahman University opens its doors to a new class of some 30,000 students, every single one of those men will disappear behind a wall, cordoned off, by university law, from this all female enclave. Separate but equal is not an epithet here, it is the goal.

In one of the kingdom’s most ambitious projects to date, the 2000-acre campus, complete with dorms to house 12,000 students, 14 colleges, a teaching hospital, Olympic-caliber athletic stadium and a mosque big enough for 5000 worshipers, was built in less than two years, at a cost of $5.3-billion. The project, says lead contractor Hussain al Harrieh, was akin to building Disney World in two years, “But maybe not as much fun.” Like Disneyland, anything that disrupts the fantasy of an all-women world will be carefully hidden: under the campus runs a 4-km long network of tunnels that allows maintenance workers to access pipes, communications cables and electrical mains in each of the buildings, without actually setting foot on university grounds. Women will staff cleaning crews, as well as the army of gardeners needed to tend the spacious lawns and floral borders. Female attendants will manage the integrated monorail system, but in order to adhere to the nation’s ban on women drivers, the system itself is automated.

In a nation that takes the segregation of the sexes seriously, the investment and planning that has gone into insuring that this world of women stays untainted by a male presence (there are male professors, but they teach via video link) has been widely welcomed. Still, some Saudis wonder if it hasn’t gone too far. The constant preoccupation with separating men and women, says architect Nadia Bakhurji, has become a drain on resources. “I sometimes wonder if that time and effort and money could be better spent on medical research, or better hospitals, or improving our education system.”

Quite possibly. But for the moment, the new university answers an increasing demand for women’s education—56 percent of all university students are female, a stark change from the 1960s, when girls were not educated at all. But the university is also setting Saudi society up for more difficult questions to come: where will those women work when they graduate?

(READ: On the ground with Saudi Arabia’s female road warriors.)

Ahmed al Hakami, vice minister of Economics and Planning, holds that many Princess Noora graduates will find jobs at the university itself, but that is hardly a sustainable solution. A recently released government order has opened some retail opportunities to women, namely in lingerie shops, but that’s hardly an attractive job for someone with a degree in philosophy. In fact, says al Hakami, one of the biggest problems with employing women is the fact that they have historically opted for the softer sciences, like arts and literature, over finance and technology.  “We need to convince female students to switch to the sciences, so that they are better suited for today’s labor market.”

He is also keeping an eye on future markets—Saudi officials are acutely aware that the oil economy won’t last forever. With no other natural resources the kingdom will have to rely on its human resources, and that means women as much as men. Research, industrial design, technology—these are all fields that can employ women in culturally acceptable and segregated facilities, says al Hakami, far more so than the heavy labor intensive extractive industries. “One day, I am sure women will be taking over,” he said.

However far off that possibility may be, it raises yet another question. If more educated women are in the workforce, it’s hard to see how that won’t lead to a breakdown in the culture of segregation. Change in the kingdom comes slowly, but maybe that is where, eventually, it is headed.