Cleric's support for men and women mingling in public sparks furor in Saudi Arabia
Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi, a Saudi cleric in the holy city of Mecca, recently declared that nothing in Islam bars men and women mingling in public places like schools and offices. For the first time in decades, religious scholars are debating the previously untouchable hallmark of gender segregation.
(Page 2 of 2)
Like all Saudi rulers, King Abdullah derives his political legitimacy from religion and wants to maintain the loyalty of the clerical establishment. But he has telegraphed that conservatives won't be allowed to hold back reforms. When it comes to women, the king has chipped at the edges of restrictive traditions. He has taken women on foreign trips, had his photo taken with them, and expanded opportunities for females to attend university.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"King Abdullah has a strategy: He's trying to empower women as much as he can," says Fawziah al-Bakr, a King Saud University professor.
Coed, independent graduate school
In September, the king inaugurated the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST), a graduate-level school devoted to advanced scientific research. To attract foreign faculty and students, the king decreed that it would be coed and independent of the state educational system.
A few weeks later, a young religious scholar who sits on the top-level Senior Ulema Council (a group of religious scholars that consults with the monarch) said in a television interview that men and women should not study together at KAUST and that its curriculum should be supervised by clerics. The scholar, Sheikh Saad al-Shethri, was promptly removed from the council by the king.
Sheikh Ghamdi's two-page interview in Okaz newspaper came next. Public mixing is a natural part of life and was customary during the prophet Muhammad's time, Ghamdi told the paper. He suggested that those who preach otherwise are hypocritical because they undoubtedly have female servants at home, so they are "contradicting" themselves.
Ghamdi's comments made a big splash because he heads the Mecca chapter of the religious police, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. A prime task of the commission is patrolling public places to make sure men and women are not mingling.
Barrak responded that the death penalty applies. He added that anyone who allows his daughter, sister, or wife to work with men or attend mixed-gender schools is guilty of "a type of pimping."
Some online comments also have decried Ghamdi's stance. "It's so pathetic to hear this come out from a Muslim scholar," wrote one man on the Al Arabiya website. "Segregation of sexes is the soul of the social fabric of Islam."
Professor Fassi is not surprised at such comments. "You will have big resistance [because] a part of society is not happy with ... the fact that some [clerics] are telling the people that we were wrong and there is nothing wrong with mixing."
Professor Bakr says she has been encouraged by the recent debates because in the past, eliminating the ban on public mixing had been "unthinkable. Now, they are trying to make it thinkable. Not do-able at this stage. Just thinkable."