I wrote to a Saudi friend as follows:
I have ended up bothered by this. Public funds reflect broadly held public values, and should not be used in support of sentiments as to gender segregation, in my view.
I believe both of these institutions in Saudi should be sold to private investors:
My friend responded:
A complex question.
There are many dimensions to the topic of gender interaction in Islam. Again, I am not wearing the hat of the scholar here, I will share some of the common knowledge I know.
The limitations on interaction are not purely because of fear of temptation between genders or possibility of unhealthy relationships growing as a result of a “mixed” setting. I think that Islam is giving women more private space that they many times need. Clear and direct channels to build relationships, and rules that protect the privacy of these relationships. This is why the relationships between men and women (who are not related) remain formal in Saudi.
In the case of Algonquin college, I do not see why people would be concerned with having a branch of the college in Saudi as long as the current setting (men/women only classes..) is not disfavored by Saudi men or women. It is important to realize that this setting is favored by majority of Saudi men and women and is by no means oppressing to any of the genders.
As for my personal experience, when I first had “mixed” classes in Canada, it really depends on the setting. Everybody is disciplined and somewhat formal in a university class. You have control over the type of interaction you want to have with anyone. Nonetheless, there are circumstances where I believe I required an effort and discipline in order not to be distracted by females. Describing what I mean by “distracting” is difficult. It is not necessarily attraction all the time. Sometimes, I believe that I am stepping on their privacy. Sometimes, when I see how some of the male students talk about the female students, I get disturbed and even wish that the females were granted more privacy.
I do not want to talk about the segregation issues because it involves many elements that are beyond my knowledge. I believe that gender interaction requires discipline that is absent in many societies, including Muslim ones. Segregation is not the cure to having non-healthy interactions, but I never view it as a harm either. I saw and lived many of its benefits. However, especially during my law school experience, I came to appreciate the knowledge and personal experience of the female students in my class. I feel that it is important to have a setting where these can come together, such as in law school and other graduate studies.
I read a saying once that says “rules of society are not rules of physics”. It is like that with religious rulings as well. They, many times, depend on the accompanying circumstances I would assume that the Canadian public, if they got to closely understand the cultural and religious factors involved in having segregated classes in Saudi for example, they would change their views about it. They would do that out of respect for people’s liberty and choices. On the other hand, when it comes to religious-based choices, peoples’ views change. It does not sound like liberty or freedom anymore, when there is religious direction.