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The transformational processes taking place in the contemporary Middle Eastern community are multilateral. One of them is related to shifts in the dominant ideology and the structure of the educational system. Nowadays, many Muslim states try to adhere to liberal views and ideas. Due to this, there is a need for the transformation of the value system incorporated in various social institutions and schools, in particular. The school is one of the most important agents of socialization. At the same time, education is an important factor in individuals’ social mobility, i.e., one’s ability to acquire higher social status, grow professionally, and succeed in life. Thus, the importance of school, as well as educational models, classroom environments, and instructional practices applied there cannot be underestimated.
In the given essay, we will review and analyze the issues associated with gender segregation in education focusing on the Middle East. The purpose of the paper is to identify which education environment − single-sex or co-educational − is associated with better effects on students’ academic performance and the overall social development in the selected region. To do so, we will review the social-cultural factors which influence the education system in the Middle Eastern countries, and provide the analysis of opposing views on gender segregation in schools.
Overview of Social-Cultural Factors
In most of the Middle Eastern states, societies are gender-segregated because of the conservative traditions and views on gender. According to El-Sanabary (1994), in predominantly Muslim societies, men and women are seen as complementary to each other rather than equal. Throughout the time in the Middle East, gender segregation has been traditionally perceived as “honorable seclusion of women” and was closely interrelated with such values as modesty and reverence (Thompson, 2003, p. 57). Protecting women’s reputation is of a large concern there and, for a long time, females could be criticized for being seen in mixed settings in the company of males (AlMatrouk, 2016). In accordance with traditions, males and females in the Middle Eastern countries are still usually associated with different lifestyles and social roles. Moreover, many professional and academic institutions are segregated by gender. For instance, in Kuwait, gender segregation in public schools and universities is enforced by national policies (AlMatrouk, 2016). The same situation can be observed in Saudi Arabia where females and males are treated in the education system in different ways − they have distinct programs and learning activities which prepare them to fulfill appropriate gender roles, i.e., nurturing and family work for women, and leadership and breadwinners for men (Baki, 2004). In this way, the preservation and maintenance of the conventional social order in which genders are strictly divided remain the main function of the present-day education in the majority of the Middle Eastern settings.
Baki (2004) observed that the overall accessibility of education to women has improved over the past decades and, in Saudi Arabia, they now constitute the largest portion of all university graduates. Meijer (2010) states that it was possible mainly because of shifts in the political and social environment which caused some changes in the national ideology: dispel of xenophobic views promoted by Wahhabists, endorsement of the tolerance discourse, and repression of radical jihadist movements. However, the labor market in most Muslim countries remains substantially segregated and, many females with higher education degrees are less successful in finding good jobs than men. It is suggested that the gender-segregated education supported by the state ideologies may contribute to this inequality in employment (Baki, 2004; Alizadeh & Harper, 1995).
Summary of Opposing Views
In contemporary literature, one can find a vast number of interpretations of gender segregation in education, and they may be either negative or positive. When speaking of potential negative effects of segregated education, researchers suggest that it prevents women from entering particular fields of study and social performance that are traditionally viewed as masculine, e.g., engineering (Baki, 2004). It happens because institutions, such as schools and universities, support identity learning in individuals and shape their preferences (Rhee & Kim, 2014; Alizadeh & Harper, 1995). It means that they form and translate different normative models that become incorporated by students. In this way, single-sex classrooms in which boys and girls are taught to conform to specific gender roles maintain the status quo of the dominant conservative ideology and support social inequality.
Overall, the misbalance in gender representation in such fields as computer science, mathematics, etc. is correlated with girls’ negative self-concepts of own intellectual aptitude and competence in subjects which are stereotyped as masculine (Kessels & Hannover, 2008). It is possible to assume that the development of inadequate self-concepts in female students is almost inevitable in case they are imposed with obligations to live up to the traditional ideal of femininity. However, it is observed that single-sex classrooms may lead to contrary outcomes. The findings obtained by Kessels and Hannover (2008) suggest that, in gender-segregated environments, girls may develop positive perceptions of self and academic abilities in various “masculine” domains. The major reason for this is “the reduced accessibility of gender-related self-knowledge in single-sex groups” (Kessels & Hannover, 2008, p. 284). Additionally, Jackson (2002) suggests that improved performance in math may be due to the increased confidence in female students as the gender-separated, girls-only classrooms are characterized by a more supportive climate.
To better understand the correlation between female students’ self-concepts and academic performance, it is important to compare segregated school environments to the co-educational ones. As stated by Mael (1998), mixed classrooms are considered to be pedagogically superior because such environments mirror social interactions in a realistic manner and, in this way, allow children to integrate into the society more efficiently. Thus, in co-educational schools, boys and girls may adopt gender-specific models of behavior and be exposed to common gender stereotypes to a greater extent than in single-sex classrooms because, through continual social interactions, they will compare themselves to the representatives of the opposite sex. In this way, students’ perceptions and academic preferences will be more influenced by social expectations. At the same time, although gender-separated education may allow improving the representation of females in stereotypically male-dominated professions and roles, some feminist consider single-sex environments “a capitulation to dominant male values such as competitiveness and individualism rather than as an attempt to improve male-female equity in either school or the subsequent workplace” (Mael, 1998, p. 103). Thus, the positive view on co-education implies that it embraces diversity, stimulates fair instructional and learning practices, and fosters greater accessibility to educational sources by people of both genders.
The given idea can be well illustrated by the changes in attitudes towards segregated education in the urban areas of the United States that occurred throughout the past centuries. Sadker, Sadker, and Klein (1991) state that, for a long time in the country time, curricula for females and males were different and meant to prepare them for distinct roles. Educators and parents believed that segregated education could prepare children for entering the real world more efficiently because they would develop the necessary gender-specific knowledge until then. The given view on education is largely based on the suggestion that the abilities and natural inclinations of women and men are defined not merely by social factors, but by the biological ones as well. However, a recent study by Eliot (2013) summarises the empirical data which proves that neuro-cognitive processes and the brain functions in girls and boys are similar. Eliot (2013) states that some of those neurological processes in males and females may proceed in different sequences when they try to solve similar tasks yet the identified differences do not affect children’s abilities. Therefore, the scientific data reveals that the predisposition to one type of activity or another is not determined by individuals’ belonging to a particular sex. From the feminist perspective, both male and female single-sex classrooms that emphasize the difference between male and female cognitive abilities imply an “automatic channeling” into particular gender roles and an “unjust limitation to diverse interests and talents” (Sadker et al., 1991, p. 270). For this reason, gender segregation in education became widely criticized in US society.
Some researchers suggest that it can be more efficient to use the gender-segregated model for teaching some subjects and the co-educational environment – for others. The findings provided by Jackson (2002) make it clear that both boys and girls could improve their performance in mathematics and science when studying in gender-separated classes. However, according to the self-reports of the students interviewed in her study, they considered that it is not necessary to be always separated from the opposite sex in schools and, in some cases (e.g., language studies, literature, etc.), gender-mixed environments can be more appropriate (Jackson, 2002).
The results of the literature review point out that co-education and gender-segregated school environments can both be associated with positive and adverse effects on learners. It is possible to presume, that the efficiency of the implemented education model can significantly vary from one social-cultural environment to another. When speaking of the situation in the Middle East, it is possible to assume that the shift towards co-educational learning environments can provoke favorable outcomes. As it was mentioned above, Muslim societies have always been characterized by strict gender division in which individuals are exposed to behavioral expectations. Co-education, as a form of an inclusive environment, may help people to embrace diversity and eliminate current social disparities. However, the shift towards co-educational school environments should be supported by the relevant ideologies in which both genders will learn to consider each others’ interests and perspectives. It seems that gender-separated schools will not be able to foster such gender reform. Thus, co-education is more desirable.
Alizadeh, P., & Harper, B. (1995). Occupational sex segregation in Iran 1976-86. Journal of International Development, 7(4), 637-651.
AlMatrouk, L. (2016). The relationship between gender segregation in schools, self-esteem, spiritual values/religion, and peer relations in Kuwait. Near & Middle Eastern Journal of Research In Education, 2016(1), 1-26. Web.
Baki, R. (2004). Gender-segregated education In Saudi Arabia: Its impact on social norms and the Saudi labor market. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 12(28), 1-15.
Eliot, L. (2013). Single-sex education and the brain. Sex Roles, 69(7-8), 363-381. Web.
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