Comparative analysis of the obstacles faced by the Saudi vs Iranian women in attaining education, their role in the labor force market, and the Way Forward

(Middle East, 2021)


The government of Saudi Arabia has made it a priority to provide education to all Saudi nationals. It has dedicated big sums of the budget for the educational sector. Therefore, the government has been successful in building an educational infrastructure that is strong enough to provide education from elementary to higher levels. This infrastructure incorporated buildings of elementary schools, high schools, and universities. However, inequalities still exist in accessing education for women due to their responsibilities and above all, status in their society. It is argued by Heenan (2002), that even though the government commits to providing education to women but it will remain as rhetoric because of the inequalities faced by the women. In addition, even though there are policies derived by the government to increase the provision of education to women, it only remains in writing until the inequalities which women face are taken into account. For example, even though there are policies to help women achieve education but if they face barriers such as financial constraints then the policies won’t be very practical to achieve their desired goals (Heenan, 2002). Whereas, in Iran, since the Islamic Revolution there has been both political and social change. The position of Iranian women has greatly improved in terms of women attaining education and enrolling in schools, colleges, and universities. The case of Iran has helped in revealing the factors such as political, religious, and cultural which have both permitted and inhibited the women from thriving in educational settings.

It is also noted that lower education and issues which prevent women from attaining education also bar them from entering the workspace leading to lower female labor force participation rates in these two countries. This has been discussed later in detail.

Therefore, in this paper I will analyze and discuss the obstacles faced by Saudi and Iranian women in achieving education, their presence in the workforce and what can be the way forward.

Importance of this paper

This research paper is very important because it will take a descriptive and analytical approach to show the current rate of women participation in the labor force and their current literacy rate in both Saudi Arabia and Iran. A comparative analysis will be done to look at the position and policies of both Saudi Arabia and Iran. It will also show the factors which inhibit the growth of women from an educational and labor force perspective. It will also suggest what steps can be taken in order to promote the advancement of women in these two countries in the Middle East.


For this paper, I have made use of the websites, books, interviews, academic research, and official archives from where I extracted the necessary information and data and then did a systematic review of that. A systematic review, “delivers a meticulous summary of all the available primary research in response to a research question” (Clarke, 2011).

As a lack of academic research has been done on these areas therefore, I made use of the official websites like MOHE through which I was able to get the data on the female’s education. I used this data to analyze the obstacles faced by women in the educational system and also their low entry in the workforce.

Finally, all the gathered data was reviewed and then I extracted the summary of the data to address the obstacles in the educational sector of Saudi Arabia and Iran based on gender and its relation with the female labor force participation.

Background of Women education in Saudi Arabia

Before the year 1960, women in Saudi Arabia were not able to attain formal education. However, few parents sent their daughters to religious schools and there were a few schools that taught religion alongside other subjects. Women were sent to such institutions so that they would be equipped with the necessary skills to become good daughters, wives, and mothers to their children and such women were barred from attaining higher education in universities (Al Rawaf and Simmons, 1991). This resulted in a low number of women entering the industrial sector. The low female labor participation rates in Saudi Arabia has been discussed later.

Later, great progress was made towards female education as many schools opened up at a rapid pace. Until 1960 only 15 primary schools existed in the country but they increased to 3370 schools later in 1988. In addition, the first university in Saudi Arabia was opened in 1979 which was named Riyadh’s King Saud University.

Another major milestone was achieved in 2009, where Mrs. Noura Al-fayez was appointed as the Vice-Minister of Education. This position was of great importance for the overall rights of the women and access to education because traditionally only men were appointed to this position.

Factors preventing women from attaining higher education in Saudi Arabia

Women in Saudi Arabia believe that there are many obstacles faced by them. One major obstacle faced by them is the limitations laid out by the ulemas who believe that women will be diverted from their religious practices if they get worldly education and hence, using Quranic verses in a falsified way in order to support their beliefs. However, the Quran has explicitly stated that both men and women are equal.

Below, I will lay out the three major factors which prevent women from getting educated in Saudi Arabia:

Male Guardians

In order for women to achieve higher positions in the educational sector, they need to have good training and higher education. According to Hamdan (2005), the Saudi government has made efforts to promote education by offering scholarships to brilliant students. Some students have mentioned that access to supportive families and male guardians has allowed them to pursue higher education abroad and hence, pursue their dreams (Vidyasagar & Rea, 2004). However, for some women access to education abroad is of great difficulty because of the need for male guardianship. A male guardian is a mahram, who “refers to an unmarriageable person with whom marriage is totally unlawful at all times on the basis of kinship, whether he or she is of uterine relationship or not” (What is Mahram and Non-Mahram in Islam? | Kaniz Fatma, New Age Islam, 2020). Women would require a male guardian’s authority and permission to study abroad and hence, some would obtain it whereas, others would not be allowed by their male guardian to travel, obtain a passport, communicate with men, etc. According to the Saudi laws, “If a woman sought to go abroad to study and did not have a male relative willing to accompany her, she was forced to forfeit these opportunities” (Ending Male Guardianship in Saudi Arabia, 2020). Moreover, according to Vidyasagar & Rea (2004), even for studying women require a mahram to take them to the institute or if the mahram cannot accompany them then a private driver needs to be hired which adds further financial burden upon the family and hence, fewer families send their daughters to the educational institutions.

Gender Inequality

According to Heenan (2002), gender inequality in Saudi Arabia is quite under-researched. In Saudi Arabia, the society is formed on the basis of the separation amongst men and women based primarily on gender. It is also considered that the standard of education in the female universities is quite low as compared to male universities. Hence,this shows that there are unequal opportunities for both men and women in Saudi Arabia’s educational sector (Mengash, 2001).

Financial Barriers

There are only a few private universities in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia which offer a range of subjects that are not offered to the females in the public universities in the country. Those subjects include but are not limited to electrical engineering and architecture ( Therefore, it can be said that females can be deprived of the attainment of specialized education due to financial barriers. There are women who come from the lower middle class who cannot afford to attain education from the private universities due to the big sums of tuition fee set by the private universities. As a result, according to Jamjoom (2012), private education is not accessible by the lower class females and is only attained by the females of high status and hence, “the tuition fee level of the institution reflects the social class of its students”. For example, there is a college in Jeddah named Dar Al-Hekma College where only the female elite’s study because of the high sums of money required to pay the heavy tuition of the college. Even though this claim can be challenged by saying that scholarships are offered by the Saudi Government to study at the prestigious universities and hence, women from mediocre backgrounds can also study at expensive private universities. But, only a few extraordinary women are able to achieve the scholarships given by the government.

In addition, entry requirements are set by private institutions such as fluency in English. Such requirements disallow many women to come up to the admission standard of the institution because many Saudi women come from mediocre and lower class backgrounds and study at public schools where the medium of instruction is Arabic and not English. This makes the English fluency of most of the Saudi women poor. Thus, excluding many Saudi women due to financial and admission requirements.

Background of Women Education in Iran

The women in Iran have faced a lot of suppression in terms of attaining education as the women have been permitted to attain higher education only less than a century ago. The first school in Iran came to existence in 1835 which was opened by American missionaries. Later by 1875, another school was opened in Tehran which was predominantly for the girls. However, in both of these schools, Muslim women were not allowed to attain education. The girls were not able to attain education because firm resistance came from religious groups in Iran as they believed that attaining education would prove to be a threat to the Islamic values in Iran. Then, in 1899, the first-ever school for Muslim women was established in Tehran. Finally, after 1899 many schools opened for girl’s education, and thousands of girls were provided with the right to education. However, even though there has been a lot of progress in the last few years towards providing education to women, still many women have not been able to gain access to it. This has also led to a low number of women pursuing a career in the job market which will be analyzed in greater detail later.

Next, I will be discussing the factors which have acted as obstacles for the women in attaining education in Iran;

Factors preventing women from attaining higher education in Iran

The first factor preventing women from the attainment of education is gender. Gender inequality has been in existence in Iran for years. This gender inequality has also affected the number of females who are able to attain education in Iran. Therefore, the women’s attainment of education is low in number as compared to males.

The second major factor preventing women from attaining education is marriage. According to UNICEF, more than 17% of girls in Iran get married before they turn eighteen. (Many Under-Thirteen Child Brides Becoming Mothers In Iran, 2020). This shows that girls in Iran get married before they can get a chance to even attain higher education. Thus, these girls have to take more responsible roles as mothers and wives before turning eighteen.

The third major factor preventing women from attaining education as belonging to minority groups. Some girls belong to religious minorities that are unrecognized and hence, according to the Iranian law girls belonging to these unrecognized minorities are not able to obtain education and they can only obtain education if they tell their religion with dishonesty.

The fourth major factor preventing women from attaining education is financial barriers. According to the statistics shown in Figure 1 (appendix 1), women in rural areas have less access to education as compared to women from urban areas. In 2016, the female literacy rate was lower in both urban and rural areas as compared to the male literacy rate. However, as compared to urban areas, in rural areas, women’s literacy rate was lower which was 73.8% in rural areas than 88.0% in urban areas. Also, overall, the literacy rate in urban areas for both men and women was 90.7% as compared to 78.5% in rural areas. The reason for this difference in education is mainly because of low affordability so more families prefer to send their boys to school as compared to girls because they believe their daughters will eventually get married and won’t be their support as compared to their sons. Also, due to the long distances which need to be covered by the children in rural areas, the families do not prefer their girls to travel so far to go to the schools because even the nearest school’s distance is very long.

The fifth major factor which stops women from accessing education is substandard schools, colleges, and universities due to which there has been a downward trend in obtaining higher education from 2014–2018. This is due to a lack of investment in the infrastructure of the schools. According to the DG of Tehran’s school’s renovation, “On the whole, 8,500 classes must be demolished and reconstructed and 14,500 classes need to be reinforced in Tehran Province.” (Education in Iran — obstacles of female students at schools, universities, 2020). For instance, according to a news agency, in one of the schools in Kerman, about “25 students were poisoned by carbon monoxide leaked from the heater” and another incident was cited by the state’s news agency which states that, “in the hot weather of Khuzestan Province, schools lack efficient cooling systems in most of the months. Six out of every ten classes in our all-girl schools lack any cooling systems.” (Education in Iran — obstacles of female students at schools, universities, 2020). Moreover, it is also said that women, especially the teachers, are not able to deliver quality education to the students because they are underpaid at the schools. According to a university professor, “69% of the teachers drive taxis as their second job and 54% of the teachers have low income and little time.”(Education in Iran — obstacles of female students at schools, universities, 2020). Hence, these factors make the attainment of education very difficult for women.

Finally, in the Iranian educational system, in 2012, women had a restricted number of subjects available to them and hence, they could not make a decision to choose specialized subjects. According to Rezai-Rashti in “Politics of Gender Segregation,”, women are not able to choose subjects from about 78 study fields which are subjects “in the technical or in the engineering field”. He says this barring is because of “biological reasoning.” (Rezai-Rashti, 2015,473). On the other hand, Shirin Ebadi who is a leading lawyer said to BBC that, “the Iranian government is using various initiatives… to restrict women’s access to education, to stop them being active in society, and toreturn them to the home,” (Iranian university bans on women causes consternation, 2020).In addition, in 2009, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that the universities should be Islamized and also said, that subjects like sociology should be excluded from the curriculum because they are too westernized and hence, should not be a part of the curriculum which is used in Iran. (Iranian university bans on women causes consternation, 2020).

Female Labor force Participation Saudi Arabia and Iran

Saudi Arabia’s labor force participation rate is lower even though the number of females graduating with a university degree is higher than the males. The Saudi Vision 2030 (SV2030) was launched in 2016 by the Saudi government, included investment in the educational sector and reforms which would help in modernizing the country through building a “knowledge economy” to allow skilled workers to be produced. However, though this vision resulted in a higher number of women getting education, female labor force participation rates have remained low. This shows that there is a lack of women utilizing their education after graduating, leading to waste of their knowledge as relative to their male counterparts. Later we will see that this is not as a result of the women’s choice, rather it is because of the patriarchal society that these women live in.

In the same way for Iran, the rate of women education has greatly increased over the last few years but FLFPR has remained low, despite a reduction in fertility rates. On average Iranian women are having fewer than 2 children, relative to the average of 6.6 children that they were having before. This is the speediest reduction in the fertility rate as compared to other countries in the MENA region. It is considered by Majbouri (2010), that there is a positive correlation between fertility rate and female participation in the labor force but this isn’t the case with Iran where the FLFPR still remains low.


As seen above, I have taken a descriptive approach to explain the ability of women in attaining education. Women in both countries, Saudi Arabia and Iran face challenges in order to gain education. Some of the challenges faced by women are common to both countries. For instance, in both country’s women face discrimination by their families and country’s policies where they are given a lower priority relative to men. There are early marriages for females before they turn eighteen and also financial barriers preventing women from their right to education.

However, there are differences between the two countries in terms of women’s education. For instance, Saudi Arabia has stricter policies against women as there is a need for a male guardian whereas Iran does not have such strict policies enforced against women. In addition, unlike Saudi Arabia, there has been a great increase in the number of females joining the public universities in Iran and that is because of the progressive educational reforms which have been brought about by the Iranian government. According to Ghiasi (2000), in Iran, there has been an increased enrollment of women from 27.3% to 44.1% and hence, leading to increased gender equality between men and women. After the Iranian revolution, education laid the foundation of the government of Iran. As can be seen in Figure 2 and Figure 3 ( appendix 1 ), the primary education percentages of both Iran and Saudi Arabia are similar however, for the higher levels of education there is a higher percentage of women studying in Iran as compared to Saudi Arabia. Moreover, if we look at the global educational attainment rate then we can see that Saudi Arabia has a total score of 93 out of 149 in 2018 whereas, Iran has a score of 103 out of 149 whereas, in 2006 which is 12 years earlier, Saudi Arabia had a higher score as compared to Iran. This shows that over the years, Iran has moved way forward and Saudi Arabia has not been able to match the pace of Iran for the attainment of education.

According to Ahram Online, women form about 60% of the total students enrolled in universities in Iran. (Universities in Iran Put Limits on Women’s Options (Published 2012), 2020). This means that in Iran women are very educated and the overall, rate of higher education is quite higher than in Saudi Arabia and also the males in the country.

However, superiority in educational rate and a literate population does not necessarily mean a higher number of women in the labor force as well. In the chart noted in Figure 4 on appendix 1, it can be seen that in 1990 Iran had an FLFPR of 10.23% whereas, Saudi Arabia has a rate of 15.2% which is opposite to the educational superiority noted above for Irani women relative to the Saudi women. The low rates of female labor force participation show a lack of women pursuing a career in both Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, from 1990–2000 FLFPR for females rose for both Iran and Saudi Arabia. For Iran FLFPR increased steeply to 14.5% whereas for Saudi Arabia, it only increased mildly to 16.2%. It can also be seen from the above chart that from 2003 to 2006, the FLFPR was higher for Iran as compared to Saudi Arabia. However after 2006, Iran’s FLFRP declined and in 2018, the FLFPR was 19% in Iran whereas, in Saudi Arabia, it was 23%. Even now Saudi Arabia has a higher FLFPR as compared to Iran.

This data shows that there are still many challenges faced by the women in the workforce and due to this women are not able to make up a very big percent of the labor force. According to Koyame-Marsh (2017), although the ratio of female women university graduates is higher than the males still women form only 17% of the total Saudi labor force. This shows that having a higher level of education does not mean that women will be employed (AlMunajjed, 2010). Hence, this shows that men and women are not provided equal opportunities in the labor force due to the segmented nature of the labor market. According to the 2017, Saudi women labor force participation stats, about 85% of the females are actively looking for a job and about 73% of the women are unemployed even though they are university graduates (GASTAT, 2017).

In addition, according to Baki (2004), women in Saudi Arabia do not get a chance to participate in the majority of skilled fields such as journalism, engineering, medicine, etc. This shows that specialized fields are only open to the male members of the society thus, leading to more opportunities for them in the workplace. This is further supported by Al-Saif (2013) who says, “the current education structure limits

women’s access to the labor market through restrictions on certain areas of study and access to a wider scope of jobs, such as engineering, media, and architecture” (Al-Saif, 2013, para. 23).

For Iran, like Saudi Arabia, the number of female university graduates is very high. The total number of women who are university qualified accounts for 50% of the total graduates but their participation in the labor force is very unequal as compared to their male counterparts who form about 83%. There is a major gap in participation because the rights of the women are violated by the authorities. There have been a number of discriminatory policies introduced against women that hinder their participation in the labor force. The major reason for such numerous discriminatory policies is the political ideology that has influenced the policies of Iran since the Islamic revolution. This pushes the females to diligently observe their roles as good mothers, wive, and daughters.

Conclusion and the Way Forward

The role of women in both Saudi Arabia and Iran is decisive. The increased participation of women in higher education is a promising factor in terms of advancing their rights and increasing their influence on the overall society.

There have been a number of positive policies introduced by the Saudi government which has helped in the increased attainment of education by the females. However, more steps should be taken at the governmental level. The government needs to ensure that women are provided with equal opportunities to attain education so that they can take full benefit of it in order to eradicate poverty, illiteracy, and finally, get jobs to support themselves and their families. In order to achieve this, educational reforms need to be introduced which bring major changes in the structure of schools, colleges, and universities and hence, act in an effective way through which they can respond to the evolving demands of the Saudi and Iranian society.

Whereas, the Islamic Revolution in Iran has helped in playing a major role in the lives of females by providing them increased chances to obtain education and leading to the emergence of an educated class

of women in Iran. The women in Iran have proved that they will be able to bring a change in their lives as well as society. According to Povey (2001), “Iranian women have shown a great deal of courage, imagination, and commitment to struggle for their gender interests’’ . Therefore, for societies like Iran, the best possible recommendation for the government in order to further improve women’s rights in Iran is to continue their commitment to bringing about a solution to the obstacles faced by women.

Overall, the process of empowering women is not a constant process rather it is a continuous process. The level of education of a woman leads to the empowerment of the women.RoudiFahimi & Moghadam (2003), talk about the importance of education for women and how that education can lead to the empowerment of women:

● The children of educated women are more likely to be educated

● Educated women are more aware of their lawful rights and how to employ them

● There is a direct positive correlation between the nutrition of a child and their mothers earning capacity

Hence, it is of utmost importance to bring gender equality and educate women as it can only lead to empowering women and leading to a fairer society in Saudi Arabia and Iran. In addition, if the women in both of these countries are able to receive both religious and non-religious education then a mixture of both these forms of education would help the women to be mobilized and allow them to speak up for themselves and their rights.

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