LaTICE 2017 in Saudi Arabia: Women must cover up
At the end of LaTICE 2016, the Vice-Rector of Al-Baha University in Saudi Arabia (see information here) welcomed attendees to LaTICE 2017. After the presentation about Al-Baha University, Sahana Murthy of IIT-Bombay stood up and asked, “Can I come to LaTICE 2017 dressed as I am right now, in Indian clothes?” The Vice-Rector replied, “No.” All women, including foreigners, will be required to cover their hair at LaTICE 2017.
That exchange was a central topic of conversation for the rest of the conference and in social media for me. I heard some female computing education researchers say that they would attend anyway. Many I heard from expressed outrage. Several were angry that the organizing committee for LaTICE would even place the conference in Saudi Arabia under these restrictions.
I spoke to Neena Thota about LaTICE 2017 (seen below after my keynote). She was one of the Chairs for LaTICE 2016 (faculty at Uppsala University and University of St. Joseph in Macau) who went to Saudi Arabia in preparation for the conference. She felt respected there and taken seriously as a scholar, but she did have to cover-up. Neena doesn’t expect that the rules for women in Saudi Arabia (see the Wikipedia page here about them) will change for a long time. Do we simply ignore the scholars there and ostracize them, for rules over which they may have no control? As in Qatar, computer science students in Saudi Arabia are majority female.
The question is no longer rhetorical for me. I was invited to attend the Program Committee meeting at LaTICE 2016 as a non-voting observer, and I have been invited to serve on the PC for LaTICE 2017. I have already had several people warn me that I should not participate. They urged me to shun the conference publicly, in order to send a clear message against the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia.
I’ve been thinking about this, and discussing it with women in my life (my wife, my daughters, and my colleagues). I’m not female, and I can’t fully understand my own biases as a male, so I sought advice from women in my life and very much appreciate all the comments I received. I’ve decided that I will serve on the LaTICE 2017 program committee.
I understand the reasons of anyone who chooses not to participate. Those who choose not to review are sending a message that LaTICE should never have gone to a place that restricts the rights of women. I can understand why women, especially from the West, might choose not to attend. I don’t think foreign women should go there, unless they’re willing to abide by the laws and customs of the place they’re visiting.
Here are my reasons for thinking it worthwhile to engage in LaTICE 2017:
- The female Computing students and faculty in Saudi Arabia might not otherwise be able to attend a conference like LaTICE. Unless LaTICE goes there, they do not get the opportunity to hear other perspectives, to share their practices, and to participate in a community of education scholars. By participating in the PC, I get to share what I know about computing education with the community of scholars in Saudi Arabia, both female and male.
- As an education researcher, I know that learning and change occurs from active dialogue, not from passive silence. I doubt that I can change much in Saudi Arabia, either by my engagement or my public refusal to engage. This semester our seminar on Learning Sciences and Technologies at Georgia Tech read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire points out that privileged people can’t solve the problems of the less-privileged, nor can the privileged even “help” the less-privileged. All that any of us can do is to create dialogue which creates opportunities for learning for everyone. Freire explicitly includes teachers in that everyone. Teachers ought to aim to learn from students. Dialogue requires engagement. Reading papers and responding to them with my comments creates dialogue.
- Finally, I want to be engaged because of what I will learn. I’m curious. I learned more about India from attending LaTICE 2016 (see the first and second blog posts in this series). I would like to learn more about Saudi Arabia. It makes me a more informed and effective researcher when I am more aware of other contexts.
Neeti Pathak, one of the students with whom I work, pointed out that there is interplay between religion and culture in Saudi Arabia. I also look to my own faith in thinking about LaTICE 2017. Pope Francis, the leading figure in my faith, recently made a proclamation encouraging the Church to be more welcoming, even to those that the Church may have once ostracized (see NYTimes piece). That’s a proclamation that relates to LaTICE 2017. Everyone gains by engaging, even with those whose activities and rules we might not like.
I’m not willing to ostracize a whole country, even if they have rules and customs that I think are wrong. I’m not confident that I understand the issues in Saudi Arabia. I’m not confident that my views on them are more than my Western biases interpreting customs and values I don’t understand. I don’t feel justified in making a statement against LaTICE 2017. I see value in engaging in dialogue.
I shared earlier versions of this post with several colleagues, who are angry with me for the stance I’m taking. These are complicated issues. I am sure that there are many more perspectives that I have not yet considered. I welcome further discussion in the comments, including telling me why I’m wrong.