In the desert on the edge of the city of Riyadh lies an enormous, brand new university campus. Visitors feel as if they have stepped into a modern adaptation of One Thousand and One Nights. No men from this point say signs at the entrances. Men are barred from the campus of Princess Nourah University (Princess Nora Bint Abdulrahman University in full, named after the sister of the first king of Saudi Arabia). Lectures by men are given via a video link. It is the largest women’s university in the world, with over 50,000 students.

A bachelor programme in Clinical Psychology was launched three years ago, the first in the country. It was developed by psychologists from Erasmus University based on the Rotterdam model. The first intake of students is now in their third year. Upon completion, they will still have to do a one year work placement. The idea is that some of the new women Saudi psychologists will go to Rotterdam for their master programme.

Karel became Achmed

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De hoofdingang van de Princess Nourah-universiteit

“It was an enormous challenge to set up a new programme”, says Benjamin de Boer, the coordinator of the Clinical Psychology Programme in Saudi Arabia. “Everything had to be built from the ground up, from the commas on the slides to consultations with the vice-chancellor.” Henk van der Molen, dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, oversees everything from Rotterdam. He was involved in the programme from the start. For around ten years, he has been paying regular visits to another university in Riyadh (the King Saud Bint Abdulaziz University), giving workshops on problem-based learning. He does this together with Henk Schmidt, the former vice-chancellor. “During these workshops, we like to emphasise the quality of our bachelor programme in psychology”, Van der Molen tells us. So, when they were approached by Princess Nourah University to set up a similar bachelor programme in Riyadh, several rounds of consultations eventually resulted in an agreement.

“We were able to translate most of the programme into English. And we were able to kill two birds with one stone, because we wanted to start an English language bachelor programme in psychology in Rotterdam too”, says Van der Molen. But adapting the programme to the situation in Saudi Arabia required more than just translating readers into English and replacing the name Karel with the name Achmed. “It’s important that examples used relate to the students’ own world”, Van der Molen explains. “In the Netherlands, many examples are about going to the cinema on a date or a meeting in a bar.” That’s out of the question in one of the most conservative countries in the Middle East, where cinemas and alcohol are prohibited and pre-marital encounters between men and women are rare. “It’s not only taboo to give these kinds of examples, they simply wouldn’t be understood. The students can’t imagine what a date to go to the cinema is all about.”

Van der Molen picks up a reader from his desk to show an example from a psychoanalytical perspective, to teach students about impulses: Ahmed is a Saudi Arabian man, living in Riyadh. He is a man of faith, and prays five times a day. He is opposed to people smoking and in favour of traditional marriage. Men should only see their own wives. Once a month he goes to Bahraein. For business. At least, that is what he tells the people around him. In fact he goes there to smoke and look at women who are sunbathing. The translations require precision, De Boer tells us. “Smoking and looking at women are behaviours that are really not permissible, although they are understandable. We could also have given an example that Ahmed goes to Bahrain to drink, but that would have overstepped the mark.”

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Darwin is unmentionable

These are harmless changes, intended to relate to the female students’ everyday life. A few changes to allow for cultural and religious sensitivities are more fundamental. For example, evolutionary psychology has been scrapped as a subject, Van der Molen tells us. De Boer: “We can’t mention Darwin or say that man descends from apes.”

The principles of the theory of evolution are nevertheless included. “I insisted on this”, says De Boer. “Why are humans social animals? Why does a child cling to its mother? These are evolutionary principles. It’s been removed as a separate subject, but the finer points are covered by biological psychology. We don’t tell any lies; we just try to explain things in such a way that they are acceptable and understandable.”

This also applies to homosexuality, for example, says Saskia Hofman, who was involved in the programme during the first two years as a lecturer. “There’s little point in expecting students to regard and accept homosexuality as a fact. They know it exists, although they often don’t understand it. However, you can broach the subject by having them discuss gender.” If one of the students finds it objectionable, the lecturer can explain that she may still have to deal with it as a psychologist. “Students will then at least realise that gender can be considered in different ways.”

“You’d think you would constantly have to decide what is and what is not acceptable”, says De Boer. But it’s actually not like that. Much of psychology concerns everyday problems. “They’re afraid of spiders in Saudi Arabia too.”

Van Korantekst naar kritische discussie

Een deel van het team op het woongedeelte van de campus, gekleed in traditionele abaya’s

Like the one in Rotterdam, the bachelor programme in Psychology at Princess Nourah University uses the problem-based approach. Hofman is currently doing a doctorate on whether this approach also works in the Arabian culture. “Problem-based learning (PBL) is a very Western method of teaching. It’s based on democratic principles”, Hofman tells us. Students must think and discuss critically, look for information and decide what’s relevant. While Dutch students are used to thinking for themselves, this is new for many Saudi students. “As in Asia, the lecturer plays a more prominent role. The recitation of texts from the Koran also plays an important role in primary education. This has had an effect on the other subjects. You write down what the lecturer says and reproduce this in the exam.”

Problem-based learning is therefore something new for Saudi students. When the bachelor programme was launched, the level was too high”, says Hofman. Some skills (e.g. debating and independently reading English academic texts) were too much to ask of some of the students. “That’s a problem for problem-based learning. All the tutor does is supervise the process and occasionally steer the discussions.” Additional study groups were set up to teach the students these new skills.

Despite the students’ initial difficulties with problem-based learning, Hofman thinks this approach will work. “Not for everyone, but for most. The success rate is about 75 percent in the first year.” As part of her research, Hofman conducted interviews with students to explore whether the problem-based approach works. When exactly do they catch on to this approach? “Most of them do so by the end of the first year. That’s when they realise that they retain the subject matter better when they actively process the material.”

Thickly applied make-up underneath a burka

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Sara Veerman en Noor Buermans op de campus van de Princess Nourah-universiteit

Noor Buermans and Sara Veerman both studied Psychology at Erasmus University and now work as lecturers at Princess Nourah University. They give us a detailed account of their experiences via Skype. It is unique that westerners get to see Saudi women. There is no tourism in the country and you can only get in with a working visa. Most expats work in the corporate sector and the only Saudi women they see are those walking around a shopping centre in a veil. Things are different on the Princess Nourah University campus. Because the campus is off-limits to men, a long, dark skirt is the only prescribed item of clothing. The moment the female students arrive on campus, they cast off their veils and abayas (long robes which fall from the shoulders to the floor and which all women are obliged to wear in public).

“Sociable and trendy young women appear from under the veil”, Veerman tells us. “Usually heavily made up.” Buermans: “When you see someone walking around in a burka in Holland, it arouses a kind of subconscious fear. These veils deprive women of a face, literally and figuratively. Having seen that almost everyone here wears a veil in public, and having seen the individuals behind the veil, this image is more nuanced.” For Veerman and Buermans the women are given a face, a unique identity. “Despite the external cultural differences, you learn that we have more in common with them as human beings”, says Buermans.

University life in Saudi Arabia is not as rich as that in the Netherlands. Although some activities are organised for students, these are held in the morning, never outside lecture hours. “In any case, there isn’t really an entertainment culture here”, Veerman tells us. “We sometimes ask the students about their hobbies, or how they spend their weekends. Going out with family is always the first thing they mention. When they do give us a personal insight, it’s watching movies, which they also do at home.” That’s understandable, Buermans adds, since young women have fewer restrictions within the family. “They don’t have to cover themselves and they can talk to male family members.”

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Noor Buermans toont een van de collegezalen

One of Veerman’s most remarkable experiences was when one of his female students had to leave a lecture early because she was going to be introduced to the man to whom she might be married. “The image we have of an arranged marriage is often that of a woman who is put in a room and introduced to the man she is being forced to marry. But this young woman was very nervous and looking forward to it, as though it were a first date. All the other female students wished her good luck. She later gave us a detailed account of the things she had talked about with the man, and that she was probably going to accept his proposal.”

Chop Chop Square

Despite the enthusiastic stories of the parties involved, one wonders why Erasmus University is doing this, i.e. working with a country which does not give priority to human rights. Although female education and employment are becoming increasingly accepted, equal rights have not yet been addressed. The legal system is based on a fairly literal interpretation of the sharia. The country still practises corporal and capital punishment, which is usually administered in public.

The most banal answer is money. The university sold the programme to Princess Nourah University as part of a 4 year contract. This largely means that the quality of the programme is monitored from Rotterdam and that Erasmus University Rotterdam ensures that four new lecturers are taken on every year. Van der Molen won’t say what the faculty will get out of it exactly. “That’s like a trade secret, in case we ever want to sell the programme. But it has helped us to launch our own English language bachelor programme.”

Still, money is not the main reason, Van der Molen tells us. A more important consideration is that there is very little knowledge of psychology in Saudi Arabia. He considers it to be his mission to transfer knowledge of psychology and to ensure that mental health care is improved. “There aren’t very many psychologists in Saudi Arabia, although there’s a high incidence of depression, especially among women.”

Emancipation is De Boer’s main motive. “I’m not selling cigarettes or cars, but providing university education to women. Who could have a problem with that? Twenty or twenty-five years ago, it would have been inconceivable for a woman to study for a degree in Saudi Arabia.” De Boer thinks that cooperation is a more effective means of bringing about change than a boycott. “If you feel that there’s something wrong in a country, you could simply look the other way. But you could also choose to make changes from within.”

De Boer doesn’t think we should take the moral high ground as far as women’s rights and gay marriage are concerned. “It wasn’t that long ago that we acquired these rights in the Netherlands. When you look at the speed at which social changes are taking place in Saudi Arabia, things are going in the right direction.” Of course there are a lot of things wrong in the country, says De Boer. “Many women are still being oppressed. Corporal punishment is still being administered in public.” Some expats jokingly refer to the square where this corporal punishment is administered as Chop Chop Square. You can’t change all that single-handedly, he thinks. “I think it’s important to be aware of it, but there’s not much I can do about it. But I can make sure that a few women receive a proper education.”

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Hofman wants to return to Riyadh in September to collect more data for her research, but also to attend the graduation ceremony of the first year students she supervised two and a half years ago. The first class of female Saudi students will enter their final year in September. A few graduates from Princess Nourah University will go to Rotterdam to enrol in a master programme.

De Boer does not expect this option to be open to everyone. There are considerable differences in level, mainly because the prior education of these young women does not always connect well with the course. The vast majority of students in the Netherlands have had pre-university education. But Saudi Arabia does not distinguish between different types of preparatory education. “Some of the students won’t be able to handle the volume of academic literature in English. But there are definitely others who could easily start working as clinical psychologists.”

Buermans and Veerman hope that some of their female will enrol in a master programme at Erasmus University. They will need their father’s permission, and they will have to be accompanied by a man when they are in Rotterdam. “Some of the third year students are really looking forward to it”, Veerman tells us. “An increasing number of female Saudi students are going to Europe on a scholarship to enrol in a master programme or to work on a doctorate. Our students are already proudly walking around campus with an Erasmus University keycord.”

“I want to become Professor of Clinical Psychology”

“Please don’t ask me if, as a woman, I’d like to drive a car in Saudi Arabia”, Nouran Al-Moghrabi says. This is one of the questions that Dutch people always ask her. “People often think that my home life is terrible, but that’s absolutely not true.”

She tells us that she comes from quite an open family. And that her father has always encouraged her to make the most of her career. She followed a bachelor programme in educational psychology in Bahrain, a one and a half hour drive from Ad Dammām, where she was born. She then followed a master programme in Wales to improve her English and research skills. “I don’t fit your stereotype of an oppressed Saudi woman”, she says with a smile.

Having worked as part of the predominantly Dutch clinical psychology team at Princess Nourah University for a while, Al-Moghrabi is currently working on obtaining a doctorate in Rotterdam with a thesis on reducing aggressive behaviour. “Mind you, it’s not as unique as it sounds. An increasing number of Saudi women are going abroad on a scholarship to get a Master’s degree or PhD”, she explains.

The country is making considerable investments in its youth, in order to improve the academic climate in Saudi Arabia. Al-Moghrabi is still employed by Princess Nourah University, where she will resume work once she has obtained her doctorate. By enabling young academics to obtain their doctorate at a good university and gain experience with international publications, they should give academic research an impulse upon their return.

And that’s exactly what Al-Moghrabi wants: a successful academic career in Saudi Arabia. Her final goal? “To become a Professor of Clinical Psychology.”