Women’s university – is it necessary?

By Zubeida Mustafa

ACCORDING to reports emanating from official quarters, the women in Pakistan should have what they can call their own university. But ungrateful though they might appear to be, women do not seem to be too happy with what is being granted to them.

Mooted in 1978, the Government’s proposal for establishing separate universities for women has evoked considerable debate. More so because in the absence of a clear-cut and comprehensive policy statement much confusion has surrounded the issue. lately it was not even clear as to why a separate university for women was deemed necessary. But now that the Federal Minister for Education has categorically stated that the Governmerit’s aim is to do away with coeducation at the university level, the worst fears of many have been confirmed. It has been explained that the idea behind the women’s universities is to “furnish a female education environment that would be in keeping with the requirements of a Muslim society”. But it is not clear how the segregation of women in higher institutions of learning, or for that matter even otherwise, meet the dictates of a Muslim society.

Other implications

With this question still not answered satisfactorily, the other implications the establishment of a women’s university has for women and for higher education should make people think. It is still not known precisely what the institutional set-up and organisational framework of this university is to be.

In 1978, it was announced that two universities for women would be set up—one at Lahore and the other at Karachi. At a later date this number was increased to three. Now there are reports of the University Grants Commission’s plan to upgrade the Home Economics Colleges at Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar to university colleges controlled by a Board of Trustees at Islamabad.The subjects which are to be taught are said to include, among others, food technology, textile technology designing and garments, electronics, pharmacy, industrial arts, nursing services, linguistics and the like, which will be distributed among the three colleges.

No mention has been made of social sciences or physical sciences. Some important questions come to one’s mind. First, given the financial constraints under which the existing universities in. the country are functioning, is It economically feasible to set up another university with three branches only for women? The resources which will be channelled into this project could be more fruitfully used to pull the existing universities out of the woods.

The most pressing need of our educational system today is not further expansion but the consolidation of the existing institutions. It is more important that the standard of education and the laboratory and library facilities the universities offer be improved rather than that new institutions be set up. Spreading the available resources thin is not going to benefit anyone, least of all women.

While losing the advantages of studying at established universities, their . limited facilities and low standards notwithstanding, women will not gain much from the newly established institutions which will have even less to offer, especially in science and technology.

As it is, higher education In Pakistan has expanded at a much faster pace than is anted for a developing country where the educational base tends to be very narrow.

At a time when there is need to place greater emphasis on primary education, the universities have been receiving all the attention. In 1976-77, Pakistan had twelve universities. It now has twenty, of which five have come up in one year alone. And none of these universities can claim to offer education of a high quality. This expansion has obviously been at the expense of primary/secondary and vocational education.

The figures for enrolment in educational institutions given by the Pakistan Economic Survey (1980-81) are most revealing. While in the last five years the enrolment at the primary stage has increased by a meagre 19 percent, university enrolment has registered an unprecedented leap of 7 per cent. Can we really afford another university at this stage?

The plea that women should be segregated at the university level is not quite understandable. It seems to suggest that the existing coeducation system in the universities is immoral or improper. This has no justification whatsoever.


Neither women, whose organisations are on the alert to detect any infringement of their rights nor the authorities at academic institutions have at any stage complained against the general behaviour of the students towards the opposite sex on the campuses.

This is hardly surprising, for the students —both male and female —who enter the university are by and large mature individuals who can be expected to be aware of the correct norms of behaviour towards each other. And they are.

There might be some women who do not favour coeduoation. But it is rational to presume that a woman who invests her time, energy and money in higher education would like to be economically and socially productive by taking up a job after she completes her studies.In other words, she would be s prepared to work along side men. Such a woman could possibly have no objection to coeducation in the universities. That the majority of women belong to this category is evident from the large number of female students in all the universities in the country. In some, women even outnumber men.

Obviously, these women would be placed at a disadvantage if a separate university is set up for them and they are asked to leave the established institutions. At present they have a wide range of subjects to choose from, and a university in each major city to go to. But their options would be curtailed drastically if they are be expected to go to Karachi, Lahore, or Peshawar to pursue higher education in only a limited number of subjects.

For a developing country like Pakistan, it is a luxury to set up a women’s university just to meet the need of the very small minority of women, which does not wish to study in a co-ed institution. Instead, it would be more feasible to upgrade some women’s colleges all over the country to enable them to hold post-graduate classes in selected subjects.

Upgrading women’s colleges

This would make postgraduate education more easily accessible to women, who do not wish to study in a co-educational university. This scheme will be more realistic since it will not entail as much planning, a separate administrative setup or huge financial outlays as a separate women’s university will.

In fact, some men’s colleges could also be upgraded to reduce the pressure on the universities and for the benefit of those men who might have reservations about coeducation. In view of the limited resources available and the shortage of teachers, it is obvious that the Government is not in a position to duplicate all courses of studies and disciplines for women.

One cannot really expect to have engineering colleges, medical colleges, commerce colleges and the like exclusively for women all over the country. In that case, coeducation will have to be accepted in certain areas of learning, or else women – will have to be barred from the courses where separate arrangements cannot be made for them. The latter would be such a retrogressive step militating against the principle of equal opportunities for women that it is inconceivable that any Government would really venture to take it. If coeducation is to be accepted in some institutions, why not at the universities?

From Dawn Archives.

Published in Dawn, November 02, 1981