Inside the Fanciest Women’s University in the World

Would you be surprised to hear that the largest and the most luxurious women’s university in the world sits on the outskirts of Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia? Yes, in Saudi Arabia, the country that is ranked one of the lowest in World Bank’s Global Gender Gap Report.

The Kingdom emphasizes the importance of education and the effort in improving access to education for women has been visible. This largest public women’s university is called Princess Nora bint Abdul Rahman University, for short we call it Princess Nora University or PNU. This university historically started in 1970 providing the Kingdom’s first women’s college education as women’s sections of mixed gender campuses, which then spread to over 100 similar colleges across the country over the decades. Then in 2011 this brand new campus was built, merging several of women’s colleges with a budget of over USD 5 billion during the reign of the late King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz. The campus is built on over 32 million square foot. It’s more like a self-sustaining village with its own metro rail, restaurants, a hospital, a library, research centers, sports facilities, convention centers, and housing with a capacity of 60,000 students with more than 5,000 academic and administrative staff. It is built for women and run by women —all professors, athletes, doctors, nurses, engineers, building managers, technicians, and of course the students are all women. Women walk around freely on campus with or without their head and body coverings (called abaya). The only exception you see on campus are the male drivers who drop off and pick up women, strictly restricted up to a certain area for this purpose only.

Being a Saudi citizen comes with certain financial benefits. Besides Princess Nora University being a public university, meaning tuition-free for Saudi students, they also get a monthly stipend. A Saudi student (defined as born to a Saudi mother) with a minimum GPA of 2.0 receives a bank account with an ATM card where a monthly stipend is deposited every Hijiri month (based on Islamic calendar). Literary Section students receive SR 850 ($230)and Scientific Section students receive SR 1000 ($270). If you are a non-Saudi student, of course there is tuition cost and isn’t eligible for the stipend but you may apply for a scholarship with benefits that may be worth checking out!

For Saudi women who would typically cover themselves and show more contained behaviors in mixed-gender settings in public, this space has become a women’s haven for all kinds of gatherings and activities.

Once I got to be a part of one of the most incredible moments in Saudi women’s history at Princess Nora University. 10KSA, a health initiative that in 2015 focused on raising awareness about breast cancer, gathered near 10,000 Saudi women, all wearing pink “tarha”(headscarves) to form the largest human pink ribbon according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Saudi women got to contribute to setting a world record, while fighting for a very important cause, and most importantly having fun with friends and families on a grassy football stadium. To my knowledge, this may have been the largest Saudi women’s gathering in modern history, a proud moment for us all.

Saudi women are creative, bold, and full of life. As I sat in the field, among my friends, surrounded by thousands of women excited to be part of making history, Beyoncé’s “Halo” playing from the loud speaker, thousands of different conversations ringing in my ears, deep smoky oud fragrance in the air, I wished that all those who have ever had a moment of hesitation approaching a covered Saudi women would take my seat right now and see this vibrancy, diversity, hope and desire to do good, no different from any other women’s gathering of this size, I imagined, except that these women here certainly know how to throw on their pink scarf so elegantly.

In fact, this reminds me of another proud moment for women in recent history, also involving pink head coverings. That’s right, the January 2017 Women’s March that gathered millions of women (and men) to advocate for human rights, women’s rights, for freedom and justice.

What difference does it make that one side of the world wears pink tarha and another side of the world wears pink Pussyhats? We are all trying to build a world free of harassment, be valued for who we are, and to contribute to building a better future for our children. We stand in solidarity.

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