When a venerable Saudi cleric in the holy city of Mecca challenges a central pillar of Saudi society, it is big news.
That was the case when Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi recently declared that nothing in Islam bans men and women from mixing in public places like schools and offices.
Supporters of the status quo responded harshly. Anyone who permits men and women to work or study together is an apostate and should be put to death unless he repents, said Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Barrak.
Does Sheikh Barrak mean that King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz should be executed? Because it is the monarch who launched the country's first coeducational university.
Barrak has not answered that question. His website is now blocked by government censors.
Saudi religious scholars for the first time in decades are openly debating a previously untouchable hallmark of Saudi society: its strictly enforced gender segregation.
The debate reflects the more open atmosphere that has emerged under King Abdullah. Open-minded clerics and lay people have felt emboldened to challenge hard-liners.
The scholarly disputes over mixing also underscore a message King Abdullah has been implicitly sending his subjects: that some outdated social strictures – especially when it comes to women – will need revising if the kingdom is to develop into a modern, diversified economy less dependent on oil.
Drag on progress
Saudi society's "institutionalized segregation" is a huge drag on that transformation, says Hatoon Ajwad al-Fassi, a professor of history at King Saud University. "It is one of the major obstacles in normalizing our lives, and it's affected our work and our education ... [and] quality of life."
Saudi Arabia has the world's most stringent gender segregation. Men and women enter government offices and banks through different doors. Male professors teach female university students from separate rooms using closed-circuit television. Companies must create all-female rooms or floors if they hire women. And the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce just announced different work hours for male and female employees so the two don't mix on arrival and departure.
Many Saudi women say this segregation is ordained by Islam and accept it. Others chafe. "Gender apartheid is the best word to describe the situation in Saudi Arabia," wrote blogger Eman al-Nafjan.
The ban on public mixing is rooted in tribal customs but became institutionalized as the country urbanized. Clerics claimed that Islam requires it – a debatable position since no other Muslim country has similar practices.
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.
"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."