Education of Women in the Arab World

Ayad al-Qazzat

(Reprint of an original piece published by Arab Perspectives in its October, 1980 issue, Vol. 1, No. 7)
Ayad al-Qazzaz is an associate professor of sociology at California State University, Sacramento. He is the author of Women in the Middle East and North Africa Annotated Bibliography, Texas University Press, Austin, 1977 His most recent book, Trans-National Links Between the Arab-American Community in the United States and the Arab World was published by Cal Press, Sacramento, 1979.

The population of the Arab world today is around 150 million, inhabiting an area approximately one and a half times the U.S., stretchingfrom Mauritania on the Atlantic Ocean, to Iraq on the Arab Gulf. The area is passing through a period of rapid change and transformation, and racing with time to eveolve into a developed society with high standards of living and a secure way of life. Education has been seen as the primary means by which the desircd goals can be accmplished. Without expanding and improving educational opportunities for both men and women, political, social and economic development, cannot be reached.

The education of women in particular is seen to be essential and necessary for the construction of the new society. Women comprise half of the total population, and their contribution to the nation building process is a must.

Modern education for women in the Arab world is of relatively recent origin. The first modern schools were opened in Egypt (1829), Lebanon (1835) and Iraq (1898). In other countries like Kuwait, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, modern education for women is a product of the 20th century.

Progress in female education until recently was slow and extremely limited. Most of the Arab world was under colonialdomination. The British and French colonial powers did not totally relinquish their hold in the area until 1977 when the French left Djibouti.

In several places political independence was incomplete and foreign troops remained in the country until many years later. For example although Britain ostensibly gave up control of Egypt in 1922, British troops did not leave Egypt until 1956. The colonial powers were not interested in expanding educational facilities or making them available to women and, as a result, the illiteracy rate among Arab women remained extremely high. For instance, the illiteracy rate was 96% in Tunisia in 1956, and over 90% in Algeria in 1962.

With political independence and emancipation from foreign domination, education received a big boost. Both the government and the public considered education as the most important means to develop the Arab world and to improve the conditions of the Arab people. There was a substantial increase in the allocation of funds for education in nearly all Arab countries, ranging from twenty to thirty percent of the public budget. Total expenditures on education grew from $976 miltionin 1965, to$1.6billion in 1970, to$8 billion in 1975. Most Arab governments have proclaimed the goal of universal literacy and many possess laws making educationfreeatall levels,compulsoryat thefirst level,and available to as many as possible at the second and third levels.

Governments of some oil producing countries allot stipends both to students in school as well as to their parents, thus reducing any economic burden. The stipend serves as an added incentive to pursue an education.

1. Overall Development

Table One gives a detailed picture of the overall development of female education in the Arab world. Aquickglanceat thetablereveals thateducationin all Arab countries expanded enormously on every level in a very short time. Enrollment jumped from approximately one million in 1950, to over eight million in 1975; in other words the rate of growth expanded over eight times. This growth was nine percent between 1960-1965, and seven percent between 1965-1975.

The ratio of female enrollments to the total registration increased from 30 percent to 36 percent. While this represents a definite change for the better, it also suggests that opportunities forfemaleeducationare still muchmore limited and restricted than male education. In other words, the status of women's education still has room for improvement.

The greatest expansion occurred at the first level where total enrollment rose from less than one million to oversix million, butthesubsequentrate of increase tends to be smaller than those at the second and third levels. In 15 years (I 9501975) the rate at the second level grew from 23% to 33% and at the third level from 12% to 28%. In contrast,the increase at the first level was from 3l% to 38%. This can be explained by two factors; first, the primary level has a larger base with which to start and thus the growth rate tends to be smaller despite the enormous numerical increases. Second, Arab governments paid more attention to the two upper levels. These had been neglected in the past and the resultant need for qualified manpower became acute as the individual countries began to implement development programs aimed at improving social and economic conditions.

The proportion of female enrollment to the total female population of the same age group improved at all levels. In elementary schools the ratio grew betweem 1960 to 1975 from 27.9 to 46 and at the second levelfrom 10 to 24.2. At this third level the increase was from 1.3 to 7.2. On the other hand, the figures also show that there are still large numbers of women who do not have access to schools and for whom universal education at the first level is still a dream. Effort, energy and money need to be invested in the field of education to make it fully accessible.

2. Development of Female Education in Different Arab Countries

Enrollment in the primary grades grew steadily in all Arab countries between 1965 and 1975 and in fact doubled in most of them. It tripled in some, as in the case of Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Djibouti and it quadrupled in places like Saudi Arabia, Libya, and South Yemen.

Enrollment differences between boys and girls greatly narrowed in 1975. Seven countries nearly achieved sex parity in enrollment; Bahrain, Jordan Kuwait, Libya, Lebanon, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. All of these countries are small in area, with the exception of Libya. Libya, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates achieved near sex parity only recently. Kuwait, Libya, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, oil producing countries with a very high per capita income exceeding $10,000 in 1978, are better able to allocate substantial amounts of money for expanding educational facilities.

At the other end of the continuum female enrollment in North Yemen with a per capita income of less than $250 in 1978 had I 1% female enrollment in 1975. The rest of the Arab countries fall in between, where female enrollment ranges from 20 to 40% of all enrollments.


Secondary school enrollment experienced a remarkable expansion over the last two decades. Enrollments tripled in Iraq, quadrupled in some, and in states like Qatar grew eight times.

Three countries, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, and United Arab Emirates, experienced the highest growth in female enrollment and toward achieving sex parity. Between 1965-1976 this growth surged in Qatar from 18% to 46%, in Jordan, from 28% to 42%, and in Bahrain from 30% to 48%. Despite the numerical improvements, the majority of Arab countries still exhibit a high degree of disparity in educational opportunities for male and female on the secondary level. In many countries the ratio ranges between 20 and 35% of the total enrollment. The difference can be explained partly by the outdated but dying tradition which tends to discourage women from going to school, and partly to the lack of educational facilities and teachers.


In 1960, several Arab countries like Kuwait, Qatar, Yemen and United Arab Emirates had no college education. Today practically all Arab states, with the exception of Oman and Djibouti, have developed their own college system.

Female college education grew by leaps and bounds in the decade preceding 1977. In Tunisia, the enrollment jumped from 1,020 people in 1965 to 6,070 in 1977. In Iraq, from 7,625 in 1965 to 28,267 in 1975, in Lebanon from 3,685 in 1965 to I 1,000 in 1971, in Algeria from 1,642 in 1965 to 12,171 in 1975, and in Morocco from 1,089 in 1965 to 8,440 in 1975.

The disparity between male and female enrolllment is highest in North Yemen. Female enrollment was only 10% in 1975, followed by Somalia, where enrollment was II% the same year.

In Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar, a curious phenomenon appears; female enrollment exceeded male enrollment (53% in Bahrain, 57% in Qatar, and 56% in Kuwait). There seem to be two reasons for these unusual statistics. First, male students are urged to study abroad while girls are discouraged by tradition or marriage. Accordingly, scholarships or grants to study abroad are rarely granted to women. Nevertheless, these figures signify that Arab womenare eager to learn and to obtain the qualifications necessary to enter the labor force in their own societies.

Female enrollments at the third level are represented in all fields with the heaviest concentration in the liberal arts, humanities, social sciences and law. For example, in many Arab countries the ratio of women studying in these areas is over 50%. It was 70% in Saudi Arabia in 1975, 75% in Sudan, 56% in Kuwait, and 52% in Tunisia. This to some extent is due to the fact that it is easier and cheaper to expand liberal arts facilities than to augment technical field facilities, and partly to the prevailing attitudes and traditions that the liberal arts are more suitable for women. Recently, enrollment in the liberal arts started to decline in some countries such as Algeria and Syria. The change came partially in response to concentrated efforts to expand the technical facilities and to encourage women to enroll in them. More important, employment opportunities are far better in technical and related fields and financially more rewarding. A third reason is that prospective employers often pay advance salaries to students as an incentive to complete their training in technical fields.

The fields of medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, and nursing have attracted a large number of Arab women. They constitute a considerable percentage of the enrollment in Egypt, Algeria, Kuwait, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Tunisia. Medicine is a prestigious and lucrative profession, and is considered a very acceptable and fitting occupation for women, as most Arab women prefer to be treated by women doctors particularly in gynecology and obstetrics.


Current statistics underscore the significant improvement and the remarkable expansion of educational opportunities at all levels for Arab women in the last two decades. A new born girl in the Arab world today has much better chance than her mother to attend school and finish college. Arab governments are committed and determined to augment educational opportunities and to make them accessible to all eligible women. It is firmly believed that without emancipating women from the bondage of illiteracy no real political, social or economic development can take place. Several studies in the Arab world show that the education of women is the most powerful weapon for improving their status as well as the most potent force of social change, and will touch every aspect of their life from the family to economics. For example, it was discovered that women's education is the best weapon against the population explosion.

Investigations in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Jordan have established that illiterate mothers tend to have a larger number of children than educated mothers. Furthermore, these analyses revealed that education in effect delays and postpones marriage by at least two years. It was also shown that the educational attainment of the women determines the attitudes of others toward women and their role in their society. Men whose mothers had no formal education are inclined to oppose the notion of granting women equal political rights and equal employment opportunities. Quite the opposite is true of men whose mothers attended a university, Furthermore, women's participation in public life is proportionately related to the degree of education.

Many Arab women already have distinguished themselves as poets, novelists, teachers, physicians, chemists, physicists, engineers, doctors, judges, lawyers, journalists, and Cabinet members.

As educational opportunities increase for women in the Arab world, so do their chances for integration in the labor force and moving up the employment ladder.