E-Learning Initiatives Might Isolate Saudi Women Further

By Iqbal Tamimi 

No one can argue the benefits of introducing distant learning and its positive effect, but what about its effect on the women of Saudi Arabia?

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Introducing e-learning to Saudi
educational institutions was the focus of the recent conference hosted by the
Saudi National Centre for E-Learning and Distance Learning and King Khalid
University. The theme of the conference was “Development and Shareability in
E-Learning” that brought together e-learning deans from universities across
Saudi Arabia and around the world and leading international experts in
education technology who discussed the latest innovations in digital education,
and how they can be leveraged to improve the learning outcomes of Saudi
students.

According to data from the World
Bank and the OECD, illiteracy in Saudi Arabia has fallen to below 4 per cent
and more and more school leavers are now entering higher education. Press
releases boast about Saudi higher education institutions for moving away from
entirely face-to-face delivery, to using digital learning tools, such as
e-texts and online learning systems, but what about the effect of distant and e
learning on women in Saudi Arabia?

Dr Jeff Borden, Pearson’s Vice
President of Instruction and Academic Strategy and Lead at the Centre of Online
Learning, who has global experience in designing e-learning programmes for
learning institutions, believes that entrenching a culture of e-learning in
higher education is critical to the Saudi Government’s goal of achieving a
diversified, knowledge based economy.

No one can argue the benefits of
introducing distant learning and its positive effect on the economy, but what
about its effect on the women of Saudi Arabia?

I am deeply concerned that encouraging more e-learning based
education, might alienate women further and deprive them from benefiting from
face to face and group educational experiences and skills. Encouraging them to
join distant learning will further isolate them in their highly segregated
society. All technologies that help keeping women at home, for educational,
entertainment and communication purposes, were highly praised and encouraged by
the ultra-conservative males in the Saudi society. Many guardians of Saudi
women perceive the Internet as a moral, religious and political threat.
Although Saudi Arabia has been connected to the Internet since 1994, it has
restricted its use to state academics, medical and research institutions until
January 1999.

In 2010, Sheikh Saad El-Ghamdi went as far as issuing a
fatwa banning women from logging in online without a chaperon sitting at their
side.

“Women are similar to other beings, yet they are weak and
emotional, which drags them towards what is against God’s rule … The internet
is full with tempting things that will be very hard for the weak woman to avoid
… Thus an escort who is aware of her weak psyche, which is prone to sex and
emotion, is to accompany her while being online,” said Sheikh Saad El-Ghamdi in
2010.

As expected there were no Fatwas issued about the
‘weaknesses’, nor such Saudi scholars explained how men manage to immune
themselves against ‘on-line-temptations’, or why a woman who happens to have no
escort should be deprived of her right to use tools of communication.

E-learning in general has huge
advantages but we have to be aware of a fake success image about women’s
excellence in education based on the fact that more women are graduating from
universities, without experiencing the face to face group education needed
badly for real life working environment, or highlighting the percentage that
managed to find a job and work after graduation.

I have found through research and
investigation, that the gendered public sphere and the segregation policies in
Saudi Arabia, has been transferred to the cyber sphere. The deeply embedded
nature of gender-based judgements and assumptions permeate Saudi on-line
practices. The Internet has not succeeded in achieving equality between both
genders in Saudi Arabia, and online interactions are merely a reflection of the
real world where men dominate conversations by introducing topics and ignoring
others introduced by women.

Over encouraging e-learning in
Saudi Arabia will help camouflage a deep rooted problem. Saudi guardians favour
women staying home and do everything from home, from education to establishing
home based businesses. This will hardly lead to women’s financial independence
or help them develop their businesses because they will miss on lots of
activities and practicing their public and face to face negotiation skills.

Encouraging wide scale e-learning
will deprive female students from attending activities at educational
institutions where they develop important skills such as attention, memory,
language and motor skills. Students who miss on such training might have
trouble listening and attending in conversations, be unable to inhibit the
impulse to talk or say things at inappropriate times or have poor negotiating
skills and may have difficulty keeping up with the pace of a conversation,
especially when there is a group of people are talking and a great deal of
information to be considered.

From my own experience in
journalism, introducing distant communication tools such as the internet had some
negative effects on Saudi women journalists. It has enforced segregation and
encouraged communication by internet, leaning heavily on copy and paste procedures
instead of proper field research. Producing reports from home only, using
Internet, can hardly be considered adequate for news gathering.

Hedaya Darweesh is the first
Saudi woman journalist to switch from print to online journalism. She
established HidayaNet in 2004 as a personal website, but transformed it later
into a daily online news website focusing on Saudi women’s activities. Later on
she changed the title of her website that used to bare her name to
“Kolalwatan” which translates ‘The entire Homeland’. In her next step
she deleted her name altogether from the editorial information online. The
changes she made on her career reflect submission to the pressures of the
society and the media market.  Media
projects that bear women’s names in Saudi Arabia have little chance of success compared
to websites that bare classic masculine titles. Darweesh’s shifting from being
an employee at a local newspaper to becoming working from home, meant financial
losses. She could not benefit from revenues of advertisements for pure social
reasons. Awitching to on-line journalism made her dependant on her husband’s
financial support, besides having to resort in many cases to the cut and paste
procedures and publishing the ready packed press releases circulated by PR
companies instead of publishing exclusive reports from the field because she
could not afford the cost of hiring professional journalists or sale
representatives. Her project was perceived as a time filling hobby than a job
that can be relied on for making a living.

Women’s absence from some
journalistic areas in mainstream media, such as advertising and creative skills,
has an impact on the society. In Saudi Arabia Hana Hijjar is the only woman
cartoonist working in this field, competing with 38 men cartoonists. Making
Saudi women’s perspective almost absent in this field as is the case in other
fields of media. The majority of caricatures published in Saudi press are male
dominated that reflect an unfair image of Saudi women as time wasters, overweight,
opportunists, ugly, ignorant and underachievers. You can see some examples published
on the caricature section of Journomania magazine.

Unfortunately, although e or
distant learning might be seen by the majority as a democratising media tool, I
can’t see it but as a tool that will have a negative effect on Saudi women; encouraging
further segregation and depriving women of learning many skills that can’t be
achieved by distant learning.

Iqbal Tamimi is the Director of
Arab Women Media Watch Centre in UK and a campaigner for ethical journalism and
women’s rights

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