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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.

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Two women and a man looked through books at the Riyadh International Book Fair in March. In Saudi Arabia, genders are currently required by law to remain separate as much as possible.

Fahad Shadeed/Reuters

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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disputes over mixing also underscore a message King Abdullah has been implicitly sending his subjects: that some outdated social strictures – especially when it comes to women – will need revising if the kingdom is to develop into a modern, diversified economy less dependent on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."

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