As more and more western universities set up branch campuses in Gulf Arab states, many women are finding themselves with greater opportunities than ever before to pursue a university education. For women in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, for example, it is no longer necessary to move across the world to obtain a degree from universities like Georgetown or New York University (NYU). Instead, branch campuses are bringing a world-class education to these women’s home countries.
Qatar and the UAE have led the way in partnering with western universities to develop branch campuses. These campuses help boost economic development and a transition toward a knowledge-based economy, while also facilitating diplomatic partnerships and improving host countries’ image abroad. The development of western branch campuses, which comes in conjunction with a renewed push for women’s education, forms part of a larger agenda of social liberalization and state branding.
At branch campuses in the Gulf, women are experiencing newfound exposure to western liberal ideologies and models of education. Whether or not such an outcome is intended by Gulf leaders, women’s engagement with western higher education in the Gulf has the potential to act as a catalyst for social transformation and continued shifts in women’s roles in society.
Women at Western Branch Campuses
Officially inaugurated in 2003, Qatar’s Education City is now home to eight western university branch campuses, including Texas A&M, Georgetown, Northwestern, Virginia Commonwealth, and Weill Cornell Medicine. Meanwhile, branch campuses in Abu Dhabi in the UAE include Sorbonne University and NYU, established in 2006 and 2010, respectively. There are also several western universities in Dubai’s International Academic City, including the British universities of Exeter and Birmingham.
The emergence of branch campuses in the Gulf has been particularly impactful for women, as social stigma attached to women studying abroad has limited their educational opportunities in the past.
The emergence of branch campuses in the Gulf has been particularly impactful for women, as social stigma attached to women studying abroad has limited their educational opportunities in the past. Getting an internationally accredited education is now possible for many women in the Gulf without having to leave their own country, leading to an unprecedented level of choice for women in higher education. These campuses offer undergraduate and graduate programs in a wide range of disciplines to a diverse body of students from all over the world. Women now have more options than ever to pursue degrees at home, including in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) disciplines that have often been dominated by men. In addition, Gulf governments such as the UAE offer scholarships for citizens to study at the undergraduate and graduate levels, including study abroad scholarships.
However, with increased choice comes increased controversy, as the impacts of this “westernization” of higher education have stirred up concerns among the Gulf’s populations. The gender-mixed environment of western branch campuses has in particular been a source of public controversy, as it is viewed by some as a violation of traditional cultural or religious values. And social pressure is one of the reasons that many women choose to study at public, gender-segregated universities such as Qatar University or Zayed University rather than at western branch campuses.
Some are also concerned about the potential for western education to promote harmful stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims, and students themselves have drawn attention to the cultural insensitivity of some western faculty members and administrators at branch campuses. But despite the backlash, women’s enrollment in these campuses is becoming more normalized in Gulf societies.
Women’s enrollment rates in higher education in the Gulf are some of the highest in the Arab world and surpass those of men—though the disproportionate number of men studying abroad certainly contributes to this gap in domestic education rates. In the academic year of 2019–2020, 1,078 Qatari women were enrolled in the universities at Education City, compared to only 371 men. Women in the Gulf from all social backgrounds, even those from seemingly traditional families, are participating in both western higher education at home and in study abroad programs. For many women, having family members accompany them during their studies abroad serves to reduce social stigma. And as more women enroll in western universities, higher education is providing a new space for them to question previously held views and beliefs, and giving them exposure to new ideas and ways of thinking.
Exposure to New Ideas in the Classroom
Western branch campuses bring more than just the names of reputable universities to the Gulf. Equipped with programming designed to meet international standards of accreditation, these universities are actively implementing a model of education and curriculum design that is new to the Gulf. However, challenges in implementation have stemmed from stark differences between western liberal education and public education in the Gulf. Western liberal education models emphasize the development of critical thinking skills and encourage students to think independently and weigh different perspectives. Gulf countries’ public education systems, meanwhile, teach memorization-based techniques and employ rote learning methods that encourage students to memorize the information found in their textbooks rather than to question it.
Gulf countries’ public education systems teach memorization-based techniques and employ rote learning methods that encourage students to memorize the information found in their textbooks rather than to question it.
As a result, students who study at public primary and secondary schools in the Gulf face an uphill battle in pursuing a university education at western branch campuses. Because Arabic is the primary language of instruction at public schools in Gulf countries such as the UAE, some students also struggle with the transition to instruction that is fully in English. To address the disparity in education models, western universities in the UAE and Qatar have developed programs, such as NYU Abu Dhabi’s (NYUAD) Summer Academy and Qatar Foundation’s Academic Bridge Program, to prepare students for a western education after graduating secondary school.
While a western education may come with challenges for some students in the Gulf, it also exposes them to new ways of thinking and learning. For women in particular, higher education can also provide an opportunity to exercise new levels of independence. With many public spaces in the Gulf segregated by gender or occupied predominantly by men, institutions of higher education are emerging as a new “public” space for women to dialogue, debate, and socialize. Moreover, branch campuses in the Gulf are attended by students from a wide range of nationalities and backgrounds, which facilitates intercultural exchange and exposure to diverse worldviews. For example, NYUAD’s class of 2025 is comprised of 530 students from 87 different countries, with Emirati students making up 19 percent of the class.
Also important, women’s engagement with western higher education in the Gulf has resulted in greater exposure to liberal paradigms of feminism and gender equality, leading to increased discussion and debate on women’s roles in society.
Feminism and Women’s Empowerment on Campus
The topic of women’s roles in the Arab Gulf has often been viewed as taboo, with conservative ideologies equating women’s traditional roles in the home with the preservation of religious and cultural values. However, as Gulf leaders make moves toward social and economic liberalization, new perspectives on women’s roles in the nation have come to the fore in public discussion. Gulf governments are promoting more moderate understandings of women’s roles in society, encouraging women’s much-needed workforce participation and their increased presence in public life. This change has opened the door for greater public discussion on women’s shifting roles, to the extent that said discussion remains in line with the values of the state.
As the space for public discussion on taboo topics broadens, western higher education is exposing women to liberal interpretations of feminism and gender equality. Such interpretations sometimes push the boundaries of social acceptability in the Gulf, elevating a more progressive approach to women’s rights. Whether in classroom discussions or at university events, students at western branch campuses are being encouraged to critically engage with international feminist ideals and principles.
As the space for public discussion on taboo topics broadens, western higher education is exposing women to liberal interpretations of feminism and gender equality.
NYU Abu Dhabi, for example, has hosted several events and workshops on women’s empowerment over the years, promoting feminist collaboration on an international scale. The university’s Office of Inclusion and Equity hosted a talk by well-known feminist activist Reverend Nontombi Naomi Tutu on International Women’s Day this year, which was focused on the global fight for women’s rights and the need for an intersectional feminist approach to gender equality. Similar events at NYUAD have included a panel of Emirati women from various professions discussing their views on women’s empowerment, and a workshop on postcolonial feminisms featuring feminist scholars from around the world. Moreover, students themselves are taking an active role in debating women’s roles in society and in facilitating discussion on gender equality.
A student-led club at Georgetown University Qatar called The Future is Female, which aims to “increase the involvement of women by providing mentorship, workshops, and networking opportunities that encourage and ease their transition into the workplace,” hosted a conference in 2018 called “Shattering the Glass Ceiling: Female Visionaries in the Workforce.” The conference included a panel of female professionals discussing their experiences in Qatar’s workforce and the challenges that they faced therein. At the end of the conference, a petition for better government policies in areas such as maternity leave, sexual harassment, and gender discrimination was presented to the audience to sign.
Meanwhile, since 2014 a student-led club at NYUAD called The Girls Education Network has been active in organizing workshops and providing mentorship to young Emirati women. With events, coursework, and student-led initiatives encouraging critical discussion on women’s rights and facilitating international feminist collaboration, women’s engagement with higher education at Gulf branch campuses plays an important role in shaping their views on gender equality.
Higher Education as a Catalyst for Social Transformation
Women’s engagement with western higher education has the potential to spark social transformation, especially as Gulf governments continue to promote increasingly liberal understandings of women’s roles in society in support of socioeconomic development. Western branch campuses are providing women with a space to engage with international feminist ideas and to rethink their views on a variety of topics. As a result, female students are entering society upon graduation equipped with new perspectives on women’s empowerment, as well as with new tools to articulate their worldviews and to advocate for continued shifts in women’s roles.
As more women in the Gulf speak out on gender issues, they provide their governments with an opportunity to listen and to subsequently implement policies suited to a changing social landscape.
Open discussions about women’s accomplishments in the Gulf, but also about their struggles, have the potential to inform public opinion on gender roles and norms. Moreover, as more women in the Gulf speak out on gender issues, they provide their governments with an opportunity to listen and to subsequently implement policies suited to a changing social landscape. Increasingly active in the public sphere, women in the Gulf are using what they have learned in the classroom to spark discussions on important issues and to define their own roles in society. Whether or not it was an intended outcome of the presence of western branch campuses in the Gulf, higher education is shaping the way women think, which is in turn shaping the future of their societies.