LaTICE 2017 in Saudi Arabia: Women must cover up

April 22, 2016 at 7:27 am 21 comments

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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21 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alanone1  |  April 22, 2016 at 8:02 am

    A better point would be that in the US — except for the rarest of exceptions* — any female from anywhere in the world is expected to cover their chest area**, and in most places in the US there are laws about this***. ****

    * a nudist CS department?
    ** even though this is not required in museums, on the Internet, or for any good reason
    *** and even in some places, still for men.
    **** I’ve never seen a shirtless man in a UCLA class, even though it’s LA, and even though the A/C rarely works well on hot days

    Now consider coverings for the lower half of the body for both sexes … it’s really still an arbitrary idea, but quite normal in our part of the world.

    The basic idea here is that most customs that have to do with identity and status are (a) quite arbitrary, and (b) seen as “normal” by most in the culture, and (c) other customs, normal in other places, are seen as “not-normal”.

    On the other hand — for someone outside a culture to visit another culture, there is the question of “politeness”. For example, it is “polite” for a gentile man to wear a yarmulke when attending a Jewish service, perhaps a bar mitzvah or a funeral. I have never tested out “being a gentile rebel” under such circumstances (because: why not pick your causes?)

    • 2. alanone1  |  April 22, 2016 at 8:30 am

      P.S. I should have mentioned that — growing up in the 40s in the US — it was thought quite outre, or worse, for either sex to go outside without a hat, except perhaps at the beach. The biggest impetus that turned the tide for men was President John F. Kennedy, who preferred not to wear a hat. This eventually did in an entire industry from what it had been.

      Another slant on this, is that the issue is not head-coverings, or even that “customs exist”, etc., but the issue of human rights, and what we think they should be.

      For example, the simplest of ideas — but the most difficult in practice — is *equal rights* (whatever the chosen rights might be). This goes against the grain of our genetically built in desires for status, etc. and these are most easily expressed towards any kind of perceived weakness.

      This is well worth boycotting a culture over — but if you are an educator you have already pledged your life to trying to help people learn what they *need* (not so much just what they want). From this angle, you don’t want to boycott, but to visit and infect …

      • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  April 22, 2016 at 9:07 am

        If you are an educator you have already pledged your life to trying to help people learn what they *need* (not so much just what they want). From this angle, you don’t want to boycott, but to visit and infect …

        Alan, you have a long history of coming up with great quotes. (You are a koan generator?) That my job is to “visit and infect” is a new favorite for me. Thanks.

  • 4. dsblank  |  April 22, 2016 at 8:12 am

    Mark, there is no right answer, of course, and each will have to wrestle with their own priorities. I have been to Saudi Arabia, visiting an all women’s college. I met some fantastic people, especially in computer science. I enjoyed the trip. However, many of my LGBT colleagues would not be welcomed there, or would put themselves in serious risk by being in the country. As an organizer, would I pick Saudi Arabia as the location for a meeting? No. Would I participate? I don’t know. Perhaps it is good for some people to go (and lament, and exchange) and some not (and to complain). Pressure to change can come from both perspectives.

  • 5. lenandlar  |  April 22, 2016 at 10:05 am

    Prof those of us from far places who don’t even have the privilege of a choice depend on those who attend for our own learning and development. Not that you need it but you have my support and I’m looking forward to learning more about cs there. Women in cs is a major issue and we might just learn some more about what they’re doing…

  • 6. asettle  |  April 22, 2016 at 10:52 am

    You had a tough choice to make, and I won’t say that you made the wrong one. There are good arguments to be made that exposure to other ideas helps expand minds and that Saudi computer scientists deserve support. But as a woman who has never been married and yet has a child, I don’t think I would had the ability to make the same choice.

  • 7. William Doane  |  April 22, 2016 at 11:06 am

    As dsblank points out, some of us would be risking physical assault, imprisonment, or even death by visiting such a country. We are excluded from (safely) participating because of the selected location, regardless of head coverings.

    So, you enjoy a privilege in even being able to attend given your status as an outwardly cisgendered, straight, married, white, male person of the human persuasion.

    Head coverings are, I think, a proxy for whether we perceive that voices are being silenced or coerced. Where and to the extent that such silencing is going on– to anyone and via whatever mechanism– engagement à la Freire isn’t possible.

    I respect your process and your decision– you are nothing if not thoughtful in your actions. But be sure to listen intently for the many voices that aren’t present, while you’re there.

  • 8. Valerie Barr  |  April 22, 2016 at 12:19 pm

    After recent developments in North Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky, I think we have to recognize that there is an increasing number of places within the U.S. where entire groups of people are not particularly safe or welcome. In Saudi Arabia the issue of head covering is a visible sign of women’s position in society, but the less visible signs of differential treatment are equally serious. In Mark’s shoes, I’m not sure what decision I would have made. I suspect I would not participate, but I completely respect the thoughtfulness with which Mark has made his decision, and his willingness to put it out here for discussion. There are many roads to fighting oppression and bringing about change. The most important thing is to be part of that fight in the best way each of us can, and we will all likely learn something from Mark’s experience.

  • 9. shitanshuiitb  |  April 22, 2016 at 12:26 pm

    1. Most of the times the people who are oppressed don’t know that they are being oppressed. They would remain happy and contented unless they become aware of the alternatives. LaTiCE 2017 could be a way to showcase the alternatives to the Saudi Arabian scholars. The alternatives could be vey much trivial for the rest of the world, but they may be an eye opener for the local scholars.

    2. One of the primary vision of any research conference is primarily about building the community of research by the inclusion of the researchers from all corners of this earth. How can’t we refuse to work for our vision just because some political and social system has certain undesirable characteristics. It becomes more important when it comes to educational research conference.

    3. I actually don’t know, just wondering if the Saudi Arabian system would allow free interactions between all the participants, irrespective of their gender.

    4. As far as the policy of “ostracizing or boycotting” is concerned, its really ineffective unless we boycott everything concerned with the culprit system. Just boycotting a computing education conference may not suffice. The desirable impact of boycotting should be even lesser than the desirable impact of giving exposure (dialogue) to the local community.

  • 10. Alisha Waller  |  April 22, 2016 at 12:30 pm

    I so appreciate the thoughtful discussion and how the complexity of the situation is being teased apart. That is so rare in comment discussion on the internet.

    As a woman, I would not go because I would not feel safe. I would be so self-conscious of violating rules which are not part of my culture (and the potentially extreme reactions) that I would not be free to think, discuss, and be who I am. After more than 3 decades in engineering education, I’m still very conscious of the unquestioned masculinity of engineering education culture. I still translate my words and actions so that I am heard and respected.

    When you go, perhaps you could be in visual solidarity by wearing a head covering while you are there. You would want to choose it carefully of course.

  • 11. Gary Stager, Ph.D. (@garystager)  |  April 22, 2016 at 2:15 pm


    Here’s another reason not to go –



    Would Barb be able to secure a visa as a woman traveling to an academic conference there alone? I suspect not. She could not drive there either.

    This is complicated for me because my stepson, his wife, and my first grandchild live in a compound there where the parents teach at an international school. I would love for them to get the hell out of there.

    My partner needed to have a son, husband, or father in Saudi Arabia on her visa and was not allowed out of the airport without being escorted by one of them.

    The treatment of women, minorities, foreigners is not merely a byproduct of religiosity, but oppression in Saudi Arabia.

    Would you go if the conference were in North Carolina? Lots of conferences are pulling out of there. I suspect that this conference should have saved you the dilemma and not chosen a nation with increasingly bellicose and medieval behavior for the site of its event.

    Want to include the voices of Saudi female researchers, let them join you in another nation.

    There are more important things in life than computer science education.

  • 12. Sarah  |  April 22, 2016 at 2:53 pm

    “computer science students in Saudi Arabia are majority female.” Interesting news, can you link to some resources or stats?
    I’d like to read more about this.

    • 13. Mark Guzdial  |  April 22, 2016 at 3:09 pm

      It was presented at LaTICE 2016. I don’t have an external cite.

  • 14. David Klappholz  |  April 23, 2016 at 6:35 pm

    Mark, this isn’t about your decision, but, rather, about Saudi Arabia:

    1. What do you think would happen to you, as a Christian, if you walked around outdoors wearing a cross around your neck?

    2. What do you think would happen to a Christian cleric, walking around outdoors in clerical garb?

    3. What do you think would happen to me if I walked around outdoors wearing a Jewish skullcap (kipah), or a Star of David around my neck?

    • 15. Mark Guzdial  |  April 23, 2016 at 6:57 pm

      I don’t know, David. So, I won’t.

      • 16. David Klappholz  |  April 23, 2016 at 7:03 pm

        I have a feeling that you might be able to guess, and you can easily find out by asking the Saudis whom you met at this year’s conference.

        PS The two Saudis whom I’ve known in the US, one male PhD student, and one female MS student, are lovely people.

  • […] colleague, Mark Guzdial, has written about his views on this conference, including a thoughtful presentation of the issues as he sees them, but also the potential […]

  • 18. Mark Guzdial  |  April 25, 2016 at 6:35 pm

    Stephen Downes also responded to this post:

  • 19. Mark Guzdial  |  April 25, 2016 at 6:37 pm

    And Nick Falkner, too.

  • 20. Roger Hadgraft  |  January 2, 2017 at 6:43 pm

    The conference will now be held in Hong Kong, so please submit a paper and come along:

  • 21. LaTiCE 2017 in Hong Kong | Computing Education Blog  |  January 4, 2017 at 7:22 am

    […] was announced to be in Saudi Arabia (see previous blog post), but it didn’t work out.  I don’t know why. It will now be held in Hong Kong. FIRST […]


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