Wider world opened to Saudis studying abroad
"Now lots of girls go abroad to study and broaden their horizons. There's been a big change in attitudes among my girlfriends over about the last three years."
June 7, 2012 6:55 by Reuters
They are also getting attention: when Saudi women atMarshallUniversityin ruralHuntington,West Virginia, held a session explaining why they wore headscarves, the first meeting was so crowded the organizers had to arrange repeats.
Later, Muslim students staged a dormitory skit about reaction to their coverings.
“It’s been really enriching for our students to be exposed to that kind of diversity,” said Clark Egnor, executive director of the university’s Center for International Programs.
“Most of our (American) students are first-generation college students, and meeting students from other countries is an important part of their education. It helps prepare them for the world they’re going to live and work in.”
Some organizations have criticized the programme, with lobby groups like U.S. Border Control complaining that it “had the potential to bring more terrorists” into a country “they have grown up hating.”
But educators working with the students reject these concerns and point to the stringent visa procedures involved.
“International students coming toAmericaare probably the most closely screened, closely vetted group that cross our borders,” said Allan Goodman, president of theInstituteofInternational EducationinNew York.
Reformist officials inSaudi Arabiahave long accused the kingdom’s education system, with its heavy emphasis on religious instruction, of teaching intolerance and failing to prepare generations of young people for the rigours of a modern economy.
Some religious textbooks taught that violence against non-Muslims was acceptable. Modern languages and science subjects often fell by the wayside.
After the Sept. 11 attacks and a subsequent string of bombings inside the kingdom, the government implemented reforms.
But the changes have been only partially successful in overcoming entrenched resistance from bureaucrats and conservative clerics, leaving study abroad the best option for those reformists who seek to fast-track change.
Critics writing in online articles and twitter posts and speaking on satellite television chatshows have held up the scholarships as the insidious influence behind every vice from increased cigarette smoking to a trend of women shedding their traditional veils and baring their faces, which is unacceptable to many conservative Saudis.
Ultra-conservatives have denounced “the scholarship danger”.
“If the scholarships westernise our sons, imagine how much they will westernise our daughters,” Sheikh Nasser al-Omar, a leading conservative cleric, was quoted saying in al-Sharq newspaper in May.
“The scholarships dragged woe onto our nation.”
“I understand the fear,” said Faisal Kattan, 24, who is a year into a three-year course in public and economic policy at the London School of Economics. “Stability is something that is valued inSaudi Arabia.”
He said even conservatives tended to soften their criticism after hearing from scholarship graduates themselves, however.