Bismarck State President: Saudi Arabia’s Systematic Oppression of Women Is a “Religious More” to Be Tolerated


At yesterday’s meeting of the State Board of Higher Education state Rep. Marvin Nelson, a Democrat from Rolla, was critical of a pending deal between Bismarck State College and the┬áNational Power Academy of Saudi Arabia which serves men only.

The agreement would be a five year contract for BSC to provide curriculum and training to the NPA. Nelson says even if the contract is legal, it’s wrong.

“The agreement must discriminate against women,” Nelson told members of the State Board of Higher Education at their meeting Wednesday, March 28, at Mayville State University. “No woman can be hired.”

Bismarck State College was chosen for a five-year contract to provide curriculum and training at the National Power Academy, located in eastern Saudi Arabia.

Nelson said he is concerned that the contract could jeopardize federal funding for Bismarck State College under federal laws prohibiting discrimination. Lawyers have said the partnership is legal, and Bismarck State College President Larry Skogen said the Attorney General’s Office was involved in the deal.

Even if the arrangement adheres to the “letter of the law,” Nelson said he is concerned.

“Does this represent the values of higher education in North Dakota?” he asked board members. “Are you willing to discriminate to raise money?”

I’m not sure how I feel about this yet.

On one hand, is an institution catering to one gender inherently bad? Here in the United States 37 institutions of higher education that serve women exclusively and three that serve men (with one of those historically serving African American men).

The notion that gender segregation serves any sort of an academic or social purpose seems more than a bit antiquated to me, and perhaps to many of you as well, but that doesn’t mean institutions which do so are inherently bigoted.

On the other hand, we are talking about Saudi Arabia which does not have a very good track record when it comes to rights for women. They’ve made progress in recent years – women got some voting rights not so long ago, and more women than men have been graduating from universities there – but it’s still not good. For most women whether they can travel or work or get access to health care is up to their legal guardians.

Which is to say, their fathers and/or husbands.

We have to see progress on voting rights, and even allowing women to drive as the country started doing last year, in the context of that. While it’s good that women can vote, and drive, how useful are those things in a society that still expects women to only vote how their men want them to vote? Or drive where their men want them to drive?

Still, there are over 300 colleges serving women in Saudi Arabia. Would Rep. Nelson have a problem with BSC serving one of those institutions? Or is it just men-only institutions he objects to?

I’d like to learn more about this contract, and the institution BSC will be serving. I certainly don’t want a public institution in our state helping to facilitate, in any way, gender discrimination in Saudi Arabia.

The problem is BSC President Larry Skogen offered a lame rebuttal to Nelson:

“This is not a scheme,” Skogen said. Bismarck State College responded to a global request for proposals, and was one of three entities selected; the others are from Germany and Great Britain.

The segregation of the sexes is the norm in Saudi Arabia, Skogen said. “We’re responding to their social and religious mores.” He added later: “I don’t think I can go into a foreign country and impose my mores against them.”

Skogen is right. We here in North Dakota can’t control how women are treated in Saudi Arabia. Yet that hardly means we should be facilitating or cooperating with any sort of discrimination. That Skogen would describe the systematic oppression of women in Saudi Arabia, and much of the Middle East, a “religious more” to be deferred to is offensive.