By Asma Al-Mohattwari
As a result of political, economic and social stagnation, education for girls and young women has long been neglected in Yemen. Even while there have been indications of progress in this area, because many parents will not allow their daughters to be a part of mixed-gender university classrooms an effective cap is placed on female students’ aspirations.
Although Yemeni women work alongside men in workplaces across the country, the idea of coeducation has continued to be a divisive issue not only in Yemen, but in the entire Arab world.
Some Yemenis support and encourage coeducation because they believe that mixed-gender classrooms strengthen male and female students’ confidence in relation to each other. Meanwhile, others who believe that coeducation leads to moral deviation take full advantage of opportunities to criticize the phenomenon.
Dr. Murad Al-Azzani, an Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Sana’a University, said that from a social standpoint, the effects of co-education in Yemeni society have never been problematic. On the contrary, he stated that classes attended by both males and females are ideal learning environments which motivate reciprocal feelings of understanding and respect between genders.
“To the best of my knowledge, I have never seen any objectionable acts resulting from mixed genders being placed in the same academic surroundings,” he said.
At the same time, Al-Azzani said that in his view, when male and female students are in separate classrooms, there is a greater chance that students in both classes will ask questions and share opinions and comments. He added that he recently realized that the best and most high-achieving students had been attendees of male- or female-only classes.
A number of studies and research conducted across the world have indicated that student performance is adversely affected in mixed classrooms.
A major study conducted in 2000 by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) compared student performance at single-sex and coeducational schools in Australia. The results, based on six years of research of over 270,000 students studying 53 academic subjects, demonstrated that both boys and girls who were educated in single-sex classrooms scored an average of 15 to 22 percent higher than their counterparts in coeducational classroom settings.
German Education expert Carlos Schuster has said that when boys attend boys’ schools and girls attend girls’ schools, the spirit of competition is heightened among students and that mixed-gender classrooms eliminate such motivation.
In Yemen, supporters of gender separation in classrooms cite not only improved educational achievement, but also the prospect of moral deviation between male and female students. Member of Member of Parliament Abdulsalam Yahiya said that gender separation must be enforced in all educational institutions because mixed classrooms result in moral corruption and have deleterious effects on learning itself.
The arguments for separate classrooms notwithstanding, there are many in Yemen who view the presence of coeducation as a necessity in Yemen.
Understandably, peoples’ feelings on the matter have much to do with how they view the mixing of sexes in the public sphere in general. Yemeni writer Muhammed Kulipi argued that not only should separate classrooms not exist in universities, but that students should endeavor to rid themselves of such gender-based forms of separation.
“The students’ experience and knowledge will be superior to that gained in separate classes because in mixed classrooms, students will exchange ideas and thoughts and get to know each other more and more,” he said.
Masters student and part-time translator Faozi Sultan said he believes that it is imperative that coeducation be present in universities because, as he sees it, students will gain confidence and develop abilities to respond to and deal with the other sex.
For her part, teacher Amani Mubark said that coeducation helps students to achieve better marks because girls will attempt to do their best in front of boys, and vice versa.