Saudi: Keep men, women apart

"It is necessary for women to be separated from men as much as possible, because this great religion protects the chastity of women against evil and corruption," Saudi Arabia's grand mufti said.
"It is necessary for women to be separated from men as much as possible, because this great religion protects the chastity of women against evil and corruption," Saudi Arabia's grand mufti said. (HASSAN AMMAR / AP, File)

The kingdom's top cleric spoke as women are about to gain seats on the Shura Council, nation's top advisory body.

Posted: January 05, 2013

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - Saudi Arabia's top cleric on Friday warned against the mixing of the sexes, saying it poses a threat to female chastity and society, as the kingdom prepares for the first time to grant women seats on the country's top advisory body.

Delivering his traditional Friday sermon, the grand mufti, Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Al-Sheik, said authorities must adhere to sharia, or Islamic law, by ensuring men and women are separated as much as possible at all times. The cleric's comments came weeks ahead of allowing women to be members of the 150-member Shura Council, the country's top advisory body.

Since 2006, women have been advisers to the council - an appointed, consultative body that has the authority to review laws and question ministers but cannot propose or veto legislation. There are currently 12 female advisers, but they do not have a right to vote in the assembly.

The move by King Abdullah to allow women a voice on the Shura Council is part of a larger reform effort by the monarchy to give women greater space in the public sphere. Last year, the kingdom began enforcing a law that allows women to work in female apparel and lingerie stores. Religious leaders, including the grand mufti, have spoken out against such reforms.

The country is guided by an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam called Wahhabism. In the kingdom, women cannot travel, work, study abroad, marry, get divorced, or gain admittance to a public hospital without permission from a male guardian - typically a husband, brother, father or uncle.

"It is necessary for women to be separated from men as much as possible, because this great religion protects the chastity of women against evil and corruption," Sheik told worshipers at the Imam Turki mosque in Riyadh.

While his Friday sermon focused mainly on corruption in the kingdom, the grand mufti stressed that it is forbidden in Islam for a woman to stand before a man unveiled, warning that to do so will destroy the morals and values of society.

The government has not said how many women will be given seats on the Shura Council. Some local papers have suggested that women and women would be separated in the assembly hall by a barrier, while others have suggested that women communicate via video system.

However, those pushing for reform point to a recent council session at which the country's top female official, Deputy Education Minister Nura al-Fayez, sat in a full face veil and took part in the dialogue alongside men.

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