KUWAIT CITY // The director of Kuwait English School invited Islamist politicians to visit her institution and see the "respectful relationship" between boys and girls in its classes after a conservative legislator called for gender segregation in the country's private schools last week. "I think the people who are advocating these measures are not very enlightened about the real world and they want to stifle Kuwait society into its own little pocket rather than reach out," said Rhoda Elizabeth Muhmood, the director, at an event organised by the British Business Forum on Tuesday.
If some of the "MPs who are advocating single sex education visited our school and saw the easy, respectful relationship that exists, it may not quite please them, but I think if they spoke to some of our students, they would be quite impressed", Ms Muhmood said. Kuwait's parliament passed a law segregating the sexes at Kuwait University and other public higher education institutions in 1996. Another law in 2000 extended the ban to the country's new private universities, but students can still mix freely in private primary and secondary schools.
Kuwait English School (KES) was established 30 years ago and teaches about 2,000 pupils from nursery to sixth year. Ms Muhmood said boys and girls only separated in assembly and in the older students' swimming lessons. She said: "I feel that our school and many of the other British-style schools have very credible students that we're extremely proud of. The evidence is that our students with a mixed education are respectful of the opposite sex on both sides. The proof of the pudding is in the outcome of the human being."
Patricia Whelan, the public relations manager for another private school, the British School of Kuwait (BSK), which has 1,600 students of 65 different nationalities, said: "It's not just the principle of segregation, it's the practicalities of it: how much it would cost. We'd have to double the size of our school; we'd have to double our staff." Ms Whelan said that "the majority of people here in Kuwait go on to work in the ministries, so they're going in to a mixed environment. Is that going to be separated?" she asked. "[The Islamists] haven't really thought the whole thing through."
The proposal for a parliamentary debate after the summer break about co-education in private schools was submitted by the independent Salafi MP Waleed al Tabtabae, Al Watan newspaper reported. He said he wanted to amend the law to protect the pupils from what he described as the negative effects of integration. Salem al Nashi, a spokesman for a group in parliament known as the Islamic Salafi Alliance and a director at the Public Authority for Applied Education and Training, defended Mr al Tabtabae's opposition to allowing the genders to mix because he said it leads to fornication, and "anything that leads to this thing is forbidden in the religion".
"This is the way of Islam to protect women from men," Mr al Nashi said. He said that segregation was not prohibitively expensive because teachers could use video conferencing technology to deliver lectures to different classes, and the students could still take part in the discussions. On the other side of the political spectrum, Kuwait's Liberal MPs have pushed for less segregation in education rather than more. The MP Rola Dashti proposed an amendment to a law last month that would allow the country's private universities to permit mixed classes. Another female MP, Aseel al Awadhi, who lectured in Kuwait University, is a prominent critic of gender segregation.
If Kuwait does opt for more segregation, it will be moving in the opposite direction to its ultraconservative neighbour, Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah University of Science and Technology opened for male and female students last month, breaking the taboo of co-education in the kingdom despite resistance from some of the country's powerful clerics. But for some final-year students at KES, the ongoing debate will soon be academic.
Omer Hamid, 18, a British pupil of Indian and Pakistani origin, said he was applying to the London School of Economics next year. "A lot of my good friends are girls; a lot of them are guys. To me, it's not an issue really. As long as you're respectful in a careful manner then it's no big deal," he said. "I think the girls have a calming influence on the boys." firstname.lastname@example.org