KUWAIT — In the 1970s, women at Kuwait University wore miniskirts, mixed easily with the male students and joined them for picnics in the desert.
No longer. These days, on the six campuses of Kuwait's only university, hundreds of young women are covered in black head-to-toe cloaks. Even those who wear Western dress tend to avoid speaking with men unless necessary.
In most faculties of the 18,000-student university, men and women still attend the same classes, but that too is about to change.
Six years ago, Muslim fundamentalist legislators pushed through a law banning mixing of the sexes in classes, libraries, cafeterias, labs and extracurricular activities at Kuwait University. Compliance was lax until lawmakers grilled Education Minister Misaed Haroun about it in April, and he committed to full segregation by the end of the next school year.
The action did not go unchallenged. According to Massouma Mubarak, who teaches political science at the university, students collected 9,000 signatures on a petition opposing segregation by gender.
"It is very sad to make students feel that mixing with the opposite sex is immoral and that they cannot be trusted to be with one another," she said in an interview.
But Hakem Mutairi, a Kuwait University teacher of Islamic law and a leading Muslim conservative, argues that coeducation robs many women of university studies because their conservative families won't send them to a mixed campus.
When Kuwait University opened for men and women in 1966, classes were separate. But as the number of students grew and more facilities were needed, coeducation was allowed. Kuwaiti society was more open then. "We used to sit beside men without thinking anything of it," said Awatef Madu, who met her husband while studying law at the university in the 1970s. "Now, because of religious extremism, everything is seen through sex."
Although Kuwaiti women drive, work and hold senior government positions, today's society remains conservative. Wedding parties are held separately for men and women -- sometimes in different hotels. There are separate waiting areas in clinics. Public schools have always been segregated after kindergarten. Women can't vote or run for office.
Men and women still work together in government offices, banks and hospitals. Fundamentalists have not yet tried to change that, but the Kuwait Finance House, an Islamic bank, has special branches for women.
Classes are already separate at Kuwait University Faculty of Islamic Law.
In a campus cafeteria one recent afternoon, men and women sat together at only one table. At the others, men sat with men, women with women.
"There is nothing we can do to change the situation," said Othman Awadi, a 21-year-old marketing student.
If the hard-liners aren't stopped, he said, "50 years from now, society will be totally separated. We will have malls for men and malls for women, and women will not be able to drive."
Among Kuwait's neighbors, state universities are coed in Bahrain and Oman, but segregated in Saudi Arabia -- where women are banned from driving -- and in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
There are no private universities in Kuwait. Any founded in the future will fall under the segregation law.
That's fine with medical student Nagham Saffi. "Our religion and our people do not accept coeducation," she said. Saffi, wearing a pink head scarf and white coat, said it embarrasses her to see men and women students standing together or laughing loudly.
But Louloua Massad, 20, who is studying accounting at Kuwait University, said she had no problem with coeducation as long as "everyone keeps to themselves."
"I talk to my men classmates only during lectures, but not outside," said Massad, dressed in jeans and head scarf. "People might misunderstand if they pass and see me talking to a man."
Jawaher Bader, a U.S.-educated teacher's assistant at the Kuwait University School of Architecture, said her male and female students work together in the design studio. She said she once invited them to a restaurant, but she had to cancel because none of the girls received parental permission to be out with men who were not relatives.
University is free in oil-rich Kuwait, and the cost of segregating classes is estimated at more than $180 million. Preparations have begun and some summer classes already are segregated. Professors are worried about heavier workloads, while departments that haven't already made the switch face extra difficulty.
Mubarak said her political science department had held off in hopes the no-coed law would "be forgotten or canceled." Now, she says, "in the fall, we will have a real problem because we don't have enough teachers or enough classrooms."
Mutairi, the conservative, says the effort must be made. Extra costs, he said, "are nothing compared to the problems that could result from coeducation."