Clerics voice opposition to coeducation at KAUST

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia - Forty minutes outside Jeddah, the second-largest city in Saudi Arabia, lies a new urban and educational center, supported by Princeton’s own president.

President Tilghman sits on the board of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), a secular, coeducational graduate-level research school that opened in September.

Students have not yet completed their first semester of classes, but the university is already facing heavy criticism from Muslim clerics. The opposition is led publicly by Sheik Saad Bin Naser al-Shatri, who criticized the university in September, calling its co-ed classes “evil.”

“None of [the opposition] surprises me in particular,” Tilghman said. The education system in Saudi Arabia has long been dominated by members of the Wahhabi sect of Islam, and has never been mixed-gender. When schooling was opened to women in the early 1960s, King Faisal had to deploy soldiers to protect the female students.

“In order for the university to rise to its full potential, it will have to stick to its guns, especially in terms of women’s rights,” Tilghman added.

Tilghman visited the university in February, and she said she was struck by how much KAUST stood out in the Islamic state of Saudi Arabia and also by the university’s quick formation.

“It was simply extraordinary in that in a very, very short time, the university had built not only a campus as you and I would understand it, but it has actually built an entire city around it,” she said. KAUST facilities include off-campus housing for faculty, students and staff, grocery stores, schools, a soccer stadium and anything else needed to support the university community.

Within the KAUST campus and the surrounding city, the rules that women must follow differ greatly from those that women must follow throughout the rest of Saudi Arabia.

“Some of the things KAUST has decided will be a part of the university are very unusual to Saudi Arabia,” Tilghman explained. “There will be no dress code for women: They will be able to dress as women do at Princeton. They will also be allowed to drive within the KAUST university and city limits.”

Because KAUST differs so greatly from the rest of the state, it may remain an isolated experiment in secular and coeducational education, Tilghman added. But she also said she was hopeful that relations between the university and Jeddah will improve.

KAUST also stands out as a rare Saudi secular institution.

“Freedom of religion is one of the guiding principles in which the university and the city will operate,” said Tilghman, who identifies as an atheist. “People from all over the world will be able to come to the university and continue to practice their religion.”

The current religious opposition presents yet another challenge to KAUST’s success in connecting with the rest of the country, Tilghman explained. “I just don’t understand the internal politics of Saudi Arabia enough to know what the odds are [of overcoming the opposition],” she said.

KAUST’s response to the clerical opposition will surely be “a topic of conversation in board meetings going forward,” Tilghman added.