No matter what happens, women are still bound by male guardianship laws and strict cultural norms. If you are lucky and your male guardian is good, you will move ahead in life fine. If you are in a family where the male guardian is strict, your life will be paralyzed. —Aziza Yousef, professor
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Within their female-only campuses, women at Saudi Arabia's universities let loose. Trendy sneakers, colorful tops, a myriad of hairstyles. Some experiment with bleach blonde or even dip-dyed blue hair. The more adventurous ones have cropped their hair into short buzzes.
In their bags, the textbooks vary, but one item is mandatory: a floor-length black abaya robe that each must cover herself with when she steps through the university gates back to the outside world of the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars to improve women's education, part of a broader drive to empower young Saudis for the marketplace. That has meant improved campuses, better facilities and research programs and a slight expansion in the curriculum for women. For years, Saudi King Abdullah has been making startling, if incremental, moves to ease restrictions on women in the kingdom, where the word of strict ultraconservative Wahhabi clerics is virtually law.
But a look inside the women's universities that have sprung up over the past decade illustrates how change only goes so far.
Within the campus grounds — a world of strictly female students, teachers and staff — women have some greater freedoms. But outside, women remain bound by a web of customs and religious strictures. Women are kept segregated from men, are barred from simple rights like driving and required to adhere to strict dress codes that often require them to cover their hair and face with a black veil. They are ruled by the whim of male relatives whose permission is required for a woman to work, get an education or travel under "guardianship laws."
With those restrictions in place, women's rights advocates say, the king's drive to modernize the oil-rich nation will always hit a wall.
"No matter what happens, women are still bound by male guardianship laws and strict cultural norms," said Aziza Yousef, a professor at the women's college of King Saud University. "If you are lucky and your male guardian is good, you will move ahead in life fine. If you are in a family where the male guardian is strict, your life will be paralyzed."
Women also face limited job opportunities once they leave the university. Women's participation in the workplace is minimal, in part due to segregation requirements and traditions that encourage women to focus on marriage and children. Although girls make up almost 58 percent of undergraduates, or around 474,000 students, women hold only a third of the jobs in the public sector, and in the private sector the percentage of working women is in the low single digits.
The education push fuels young Saudi women's ambitions, but they still struggle to navigate the limited possibilities.
"I want to be independent and work before I get married," said Shaden el-Hamdan, a 22-year-old studying an English degree at Riyadh's Imam Mohammed bin Saud Islamic University. She's lucky in that her family is not pressing her to get married — her father tells to wait another six years before thinking about it.
But she said she knows getting a job is difficult. She doesn't want to be a teacher, the job of an estimated 78 percent of the women who work. So she talks about trying to find a position at one of the multinational corporations operating in the kingdom. If she can't, she'll stay in school for a Master's.
The overhaul of women's education over the past decade has been significant. Previously, women's colleges were overseen by the Department of Religious Guidance, putting female students under the direct power of clerics. In 2002, they were put under the Education Ministry, which oversees male education. Five years later, the first full women's university was created, the Princess Nora University in Riyadh.
In 2009, the country's first gender-mixed university, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, was opened. It was a show of defiance by the king against the country's ultraconservatives, on whose support his power is partly based. When one prominent government cleric criticized the university, the king fired him. Still, it remains the only university where men and women attend lectures together.
Princess Nora University represents the kingdom's focus on beefing up separate women's schooling — and it provides the most visible contrast between campus and street life.
In 2011, a gleaming new PNU campus was inaugurated, able to accommodate 50,000 students. Along with a brand new hospital and an architecturally stunning library, it boasts a state-of-the-art sports complex with a swimming pool, gym, indoor running track and sprawling outdoor soccer fields, a major shift for a country where female athletics have long been frowned upon.
Arabesque latticework, known as mashrabiyas, over the windows provide privacy, and enclosed pedestrian bridges and four metro lines ferry girls around the 800 hectare (nearly 2,000 acre) campus, ensuring that will never be seen by male drivers and campus police outside the buildings.
Several young women on campus quietly described it as a "golden cage."
"The campus itself and the buildings are great, but the faculty is not very strong," 20-year-old Nada el-Agmy said. "I feel like I'm learning things I already know."
Though some science and business courses are taught, degrees in Teaching and Home Economics are geared toward professions perceived as feminine. At the campus bookstore, a text on Islam leans next to a book on "how to think like a businessman."
Curricula for women remain limited. No universities offer engineering degrees for women, and many courses are geared toward traditional fields such as nursing and teaching. With clerics opposed to women TV newscasters, communications and journalism degrees are rare — the King Saud University in Riyadh, for example, only began to offer one for female undergraduates this year.
In the end, increased women's rights is not the aim: The priority for the ambitious overhaul in the quality of education for men and women is to wean Saudis off the generous welfare state funded by the country's oil riches and push them into the job market, particularly outside the oil sector.
Almost a third of the kingdom's population is under the age of 15 and more than half under the age of 25. The International Monetary Fund says that across the Gulf Arab region, an expected 1 million new entrants into the workforce could find themselves without jobs by 2018 if the private sector does not expand.
Saudi unemployment is estimated at 12 percent. Yet foreign workers overwhelmingly dominate jobs in the private sector, where only 10 percent of the workers are Saudi nationals. Saudis prefer to work in the public sector, where lucrative benefits are guaranteed.
Education spending makes up more than a quarter of the state budget, at $45 million in 2012 and an expected $54.5 billion this year, according to the Oxford Business Group. Money has been allocated the past two years for 1,300 new schools, including universities and colleges.
But teaching is strictly targeted to the marketplace. There are few political courses.
"There is a big difference between manpower and rights. They need teachers and positions filled, they don't need political science people and decision-makers," said Yousef, of King Saud University.
And for women, "education itself will not change things," she said, saying women must be educated in a culture of rights. "They can be Ph.D's, but not know their rights."