Teaching Special Education in Saudi: A Lebanese Woman’s Perspective
“Although it is not highlighted in the mainstream media, the world must recognize that Saudi Arabia invests in its women, and its women in turn are investing in their country.”
I am often surprised by the way that women living in Saudi Arabia are perceived by the rest of the world as a result of the mainstream media. As a Lebanese woman living and working in this country alongside women from Saudi and other countries for almost four years, my experience has been entirely different than what has been presented to the world through the “news.” When I thought about what I wanted to say in this article about my work and experiences, and about the way that women impact society here in Saudi Arabia, I decided it was important to speak from within my passion and the field that I teach in, and that is special education.
I grew up in Tripoli, Lebanon, and became aware of the need for work in the field of special education at a very young age. As a high school student I volunteered at an orphanage, where I noted that the basic needs of the children were met, but there was a gap in the area of creativity. There was not much thought put into what creative activities the children could be involved with to fill their free time, and I was one of the few people who considered those needs when I was volunteering. From there I began thinking that there are others who have even more needs, and those are the students with special needs. I always wanted a life that was not only challenging but also meaningful, and I knew that working in special education would give me that life. Before coming to Saudi Arabia, I had field experience in Lebanon working under the supervision of my professors, through my Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programs at St. Joseph University in Beirut. After teaching in the field for several years I moved to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to teach at Dar Al-Hekma College where I also supervise student teaching throughout the city’s public and private school systems.
What really impressed me when I came to Saudi Arabia is that it has built very good laws advocating for special needs students–this is something that I found was missing in Lebanon. In Saudi, like in many other places, the special education programs are still young, however the Ministry of Education recognizes the importance of developing the field, and it has already created rules, regulations, and laws that require the application of special education curricula in the public school system. The value of the work of teachers in special education is well recognized in Saudi Arabia, and that is clear at every level, even through the amount of compensation they are offered, which is much higher than that offered to special education teachers in most other public school systems around the world.
As an educator coming into Saudi Arabia from the outside, I see challenges that are common to special education programs around the world. One is the need to educate and recruit more qualified and experienced teachers into the school system. The other is related to practical application of the curricula and laws related to special education. Through programs like the one we have here at Dar Al-Hekma, we teach women how to meet these challenges. We have excellent resources and faculty that allow us to teach students how to think on a theoretical level, and to give them the practical field experience they need to understand how change gets made. The women who graduate with a degree in Special Education from Dar Al-Hekma are qualified to work in public schools, private schools, or for the Ministry of Education, and can apply their knowledge in many other creative ways that make a big difference both in and outside of Saudi Arabia. For example, many of our students work hard to develop materials in Arabic, so that they can be used in other Arab countries that have a huge need for special education curricula and instructional materials. I am proud to say that every single young lady who graduated from our program in 2011 is now a part of the Saudi workforce. The challenges in special education are met through the opportunities created by women in Saudi Arabia, who are spreading awareness and sensitivity about this field, and make a huge impact as they continue to work hard at integrating children with special needs and learning disabilities into the public and private education systems. This is something that people from the outside looking in tend not to take notice of, because they are busy asking the same questions over and over about what it is like to be a woman living in Saudi Arabia.
I have traveled to the United States twice to attend conferences, and both times I was asked the same questions by Americans and other foreigners. They always ask, “Do you have to wear the abaya and cover your hair?” I respond and say “Yes, we cover, but what’s the problem?” Then they say, “Oh but you can’t drive!” and I say “Yes, but we have drivers and they drive us everywhere.” A lot of people I meet also have very negative ideas about Islam, and ask me questions about my beliefs as a Muslim. Once they realize that I have an education and that their perception of my position as a Muslim woman in Saudi society is not what they expected, they become open to sharing ideas and thoughts about our work, and they realize that in this country we are doing good work and we are progressing in our field of study just as they are in theirs. It is through these exchanges that shifts in perception occur, and it is in this way that we can increase cross-cultural understanding.
The Ministry of Education in Saudi Arabia is supporting and contributing to cross-cultural understanding, as evidenced by the many scholarships it awards each year to Saudi students, both men and women, to travel abroad and get their higher education degrees in other countries. Through initiatives that allow people from other parts of the world to meet and interact with those who live in Saudi Arabia, we can begin to see a change in ideas in the media and in discourse about Saudi women in particular and about Arab and Muslim women in general. Although it is not highlighted in the mainstream media, the world must recognize that Saudi Arabia invests in its women, and its women in turn are investing in their country.
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The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.