RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Roads in Saudi Arabia are among the most dangerous in the world, with a high rate of traffic accidents. But one type of victim stands out: female teachers, who are dying at alarming rates because of long commutes through the desert to reach schools in remote locations.
The Saudi government appoints teachers to work in small villages where local staff cannot fill all vacancies. But unlike their male counterparts, female teachers in this conservative Muslim country have difficulty living alone in the villages, forcing them to drive each day; they need permission from a male guardian to live alone and have to find a landlord willing to rent them an apartment.
Nof al-Oneizi was so worried she would die that she wrote to education officials urging them to find her a school nearer to her home in the northern town of al-Jouf, rather than the one she was assigned in a village 108 miles away — a three-hour drive because of the bad roads.
But al-Oneizi's fears came true before a solution to her problem could be found. The 28-year-old English-language teacher, who was engaged to be married, died in a horrific car accident last November. Five other female teachers, the driver of their van and four family members in the car they hit were also killed.
"We were devastated," said Suad Amri, al-Oneizi's aunt. "I still have her school papers, all splattered with blood. Her mom can't look at them. She can't absorb what has happened to her daughter."
Nearly 6,000 people died in traffic accidents in 2007 in this country of 27.6 million, according to the Saudi Traffic Department. That is a rate of around 21 deaths per 100,000 people — one of the highest in the world. By comparison, around 14 per 100,000 people were killed in road accidents in the United States in 2006, according to the most recent statistics from the Transportation Department.
A study released in October by the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology found that female teachers commuting to their jobs have about a 50 percent greater chance of getting into car accidents than average Saudi citizens. Its findings were based on figures from the late 1990s.
"The issue has become a national concern," said the study.
The commission said the study's aim was to point out "the magnitude of the problem," which it said has deepened with the rising number of teachers graduating and being assigned to remote schools.
There are no current statistics on how many female teachers die every year. But 21 female teachers were reported killed and 38 others injured in 11 accidents reported by Saudi newspapers since the school year began in September.
Accidents involving the teachers often occur in areas where there is no cell phone reception or nearby medical help, leaving them vulnerable to dying from their injuries. It took two and a half hours for the first victim from a deadly crash last week to get to the hospital, according to Al-Riyadh newspaper.
"It breaks my heart to hear of those deaths," said Suad al-Khalaf, a home economics teacher whose commute from the Saudi capital of Riyadh to her school in al-Dilim, 30 miles to the southeast, is 75 minutes each way.
"Every day, I'm on edge until I reach the school," she said. "I love teaching. But how can we be comfortable doing our job when we have to worry about getting to school in one piece?"
The Saudi Education Ministry appoints thousands of male and female teachers to fill vacancies every year at government-run schools in remote areas. Ministry officials say they stipulate teachers should live near their schools.
But female teachers find it difficult to move because they need permission from a male guardian to live alone and have to find a landlord willing to rent them an apartment. Many of them take the positions anyway and suffer through long commutes because job opportunities are scarce for women in Saudi Arabia, mainly limited to teaching and health care.
Education Ministry spokesman Abdul-Aziz Jarallah said in December that a ministry effort to build special housing for female teachers appointed to remote schools had failed. None of the teachers wanted to live in the buildings, so the ministry shut them down, he said in remarks published in Al Riyadh newspaper.
Women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, so the teachers must hire drivers — sometimes sharing rides in minivans, leaving home as early as 3 a.m. Many of the roads leading to the remote schools are windy, unpaved and full of potholes.
"It's as if Saudi (female) teachers are doomed to bid farewell to their families every day and embark on a journey they may not return from," wrote Hasan al-Harthi in Al-Hayat newspaper.
In November 2005, four women made headlines when they decided to put an end to their hazardous commute: They married their driver and settled in a village near their school. Islam allows a man to take up to four wives at the same time.