Gender Segregation in Schools Continues to Stir Debates

Amal Mohamed’s school graduation ceremony held at Dubai Men’s College in 2016. (Private archive)

Special report on women and education

Gender segregation in schools is the subject of debates around the world, including in the United Arab Emirates which has one of the highest percentages of single-sex schools in the Middle East.

Amal Mohamed, a 23-year-old Egyptian who studied at the Dubai National School, seemed to have struggled to cope with real life since graduating from the gender segregated school.

“The real world isn’t segregated, humans interact on a daily basis, so why go against that and raise boys and girls separately?”

Following her school graduation, Ms. Mohamed enrolled at the American University in the Emirates (AUE), a co-educational university, where she had obtained a scholarship. She found it a bit strange to see men and women walking together on campus and realized the lingering effects of studying in a segregated school. 

“I had to be in classes and groups with both genders and was forced to deal and interact with everyone even though I had no idea how to do that,” Ms. Mohamed said. “Therefore, I would always appear to others as nervous for no reason.” It also didn’t help that she was living away from her family in Egypt, so she did not have many opportunities to even interact with her male relatives. 

Ms. Mohamed has also faced difficulties in her professional career. As a marketing employee at IFFCO International Foodstuffs in Dubai, she had to reach out to many clients and customers, mainly men. “I was not mentally prepared to speak to all of those men; it caused me a lot of anxiety every time I did so.”

Abir Chebaro, gender consultant and former advisor to the Lebanese prime minister for women’s affairs, said that Arab countries in the Middle East still had a long way to go when it comes to gender equality. “Schools should encourage girls to join STEM fields,” she said, referring to the acronym of a term generally used to group the academic fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. ”Women have to look into the future of work and get out of the clusters because they are clustered somewhere. They have to change, breakthrough, and go into new opportunities and fields.”

Zoom interview with Mrs. Abir Chebaro. November 18, 2021. Dubai, UAE. SANDRA EMAM.

Ms. Chebaro finds that it is important to have a diversity of sexes at schools to help students better build their networks. “For example, if a woman is only surrounded by women, she will not fair as well as if she was surrounded by students from both genders, men and women.” She explains that “gender segregation in schools has its roots in religious beliefs, which I respect. I went to a mixed school. I also enrolled my kids in a mixed school.” 

Karim Kiwan, a 24-year old Egyptian physiotherapy student at the University of Sharjah (UOS), also believes that studying in a gender-segregated school isn’t ideal. 

He also referred to some behavioral ”customs and traditions” which boys were taught at school. “We were told to gaze down at the floor whenever a woman passes by, and to avoid speaking to anyone if it’s not a male.”

Karim Kiwan at the UOS campus. November 23, 2021. University of Sharjah, UAE. (Photo by Yomna Sayed) 

Dubai is home to 215 schools, according to the Dubai Schools Inspection Bureau. Many of them provide mixed classrooms, but others cater exclusively to boys or girls, gender segregation being an important factor for some conservative families choosing the educational system for their children.

According to a Global Education Monitoring Report published in 2020 by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), the United Arab Emirates has one of the highest percentages of single-sex schools in the Middle East, being approximately 67 percent. It is followed by Kuwait, Oman, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. 

Some students are in favor of a gender-segregated school. Aya Youssef, a 21-year-old Palestinian who studied at Al Mawakeb school in Dubai, believes that enrolling in an all-girls school was a better choice for her. “I used to go to school with zero worries – there were many hijabis (veiled women) that used to take off their scarf since they were no boys around, and there were no distractions.” 

Ms. Youssef, currently a senior student at the American University in Cairo, said she is facing no problems interacting with men. “I believe what made me face no difficulties is the fact that I still had some sort of communication with men outside school.”

She also said that having an all-girls class was a positive factor that led to her high academic performance. The students had their minds completely dedicated to education and had the mission of giving their full potential, she said. 

Gender segregation in schools is a subject that continues to be debated by many experts around the world, given the different opinions about the theories and differences of learning and ways to deal with genders. “Each person knows himself/herself; they know which environment would best suit their preferred educational environment and capabilities. But in the end, all would agree that the education gained is what matters the most,” said Chebaro.

Sandra Emam

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