Ahead of the Curve: One hundred years of coeducation at AUB

Above: Double-veiled and accompanied by her husband, Ihsan Shakir (BA ’29) came to campus from Egypt in 1924 as the first Muslim woman to enroll at AUB. She expressed a belief that continues to resonate today: “The natural contacts that grow out of university life . . . [promote] greater understanding, mutual self-respect, and more wholesome relationships.”

One hundred years ago, acting president Edward F. Nickoley reported, “Beginning this year, women are admitted as follows: 1) in the Schools of Medicine, Pharmacy, and Dentistry; 2) in the sophomore class of the School of Arts and Sciences, preparatory to entrance to medicine; 3) as special students above the freshman year in the School of Arts and Sciences.” It was not until 1969—nearly a half century after AUB—that Harvard, Princeton, and Yale admitted women. As Elsa Kerr, adviser to women students, noted in 1947, “This was indeed a radical step, for in the Arab countries, coeducation above the primary schools had never existed.”

Following World War I, the end of the Ottoman Empire, and influential new laws related to the emancipation of women in Turkey, there were new opportunities for educated women to work as nurses, teachers, clerical workers, and support staff. AUB, originally known as the Syrian Protestant College, had already answered the call for more trained nurses by establishing the region’s first nursing school in 1905. Female empowerment was on the rise, especially in Beirut, where secondary girls’ schools were flourishing. With higher education degrees, women could aspire to jobs as engineers, architects, scientists, doctors, and diplomats.

Unlike some of its peer institutions, which were wrestling with the question of coeducation, AUB never made the spurious argument that women were not suited for or capable of high-level learning. Women were expected to meet the same standards as men, and there were no courses developed specifically for female students, such as hygiene or home economics. Working with the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions in 1926–27, AUB’s board and the American School for Girls established a junior college for women to provide living accommodations for its female students and to better educate freshmen and sophomores. That junior college evolved into the Beirut College for Women, then became Beirut University College after accepting men in 1973. Today it is known as the Lebanese American University.

AUB introduced mixed-sex higher education to the region in a move that took vision and a willingness to adjust to present-day exigencies while carving out a bold new future. Progress is rarely a straight line: the disciplines and year levels open to women changed throughout the 1920s; it was not until the 1940s that President Bayard Dodge reported that men and women could be seated alphabetically in Assembly Hall and in the classrooms without embarrassment; and it was not until 1967 that women were admitted to the engineering school. The starting point for these milestones occurred in 1921, when a handful of courageous young women faced life on campus as a highly visible student minority. In recent years, women are in the majority at AUB, representing just over 50 percent of student enrollment. While women around the globe continue to struggle for equality, AUB continues to challenge the status quo on issues of gender bias, promoting female empowerment in the Arab world and beyond. 

Sara Levy (BS, Pharmacy ’25). First female graduate

Edma Abu-Chedid (BA ’26, MD ’31). One of the first women to graduate with a bachelor’s degree from FAS, and the first female FM graduate.

Abu-Chedid championed women’s reproductive rights and health and established free clinics throughout Lebanon.

Angela Jurdak Khoury (BA ’37, MA ’38). Scholar, diplomat.

AUB’s first female instructor and Lebanon’s first female diplomat. Khoury was secretary-general of Lebanon’s delegation to the UN Conference on International Organization in San Francisco in 1945 and Lebanon’s representative to the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

Mamdouha El Sayed Bobst (BA ’47).
Women’s health care advocate and

Bobst raised public awareness of women’s health issues and helped break the taboo
of cancer throughout the Middle East. She launched the first healthcare system in Libya, opened its first hospital, and trained its first nurses. Bobst established AUBMC’s Mamdouha El Sayed Bobst Breast Unit, the first dedicated breast unit in Lebanon and the Middle East.

Huda Zurayk (BA ’65). First female academic dean (1998–2008).

Zurayk is an internationally recognized scholar on reproductive health and Arab world health issues.

Zaha Hadid (student, 1968–70). Innovative architect.

Hadid’s pioneering work reimagined architecture for the twenty-first century. Made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2012, Hadid was the first woman to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize (2004). Hadid designed AUB’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs building in 2014.

Reem Acra (BBA ’82). Internationally recognized high fashion designer.

Acra’s gowns and ready-to-wear designs have been worn by celebrities and dignitaries around the globe. She won the Building Bridges Award in 2014 and has been a member of the Dubai Design and Fashion Council since its inception. Acra dreamed of being a fashion designer after putting on a fashion show at AUB Outdoors in 1982.

Mariam Dabboussi (BEN ’18). Linguist, software developer, and social activist.

Dabboussi helped to bring Google Assistant’s services in Arabic to life via laptops, mobile phones, smart watches, and home speakers. As a student, she led a team of 30 students in developing 16 solar-powered lamp posts and 10 solar kits in El Mejdel in northern Lebanon, as part of the student initiative
“Light Up a Village.”