In the battle for women’s rights, King Abdullah is photographed with 40 women
The significance of the picture lies less in the fact that female faces were bared than in the break with the kingdom’s traditionally rigid separation of the sexes. Since it was published, the picture has become a talking point on blogs, Internet forums, shisha cafes, newsrooms and the corridors of power.
The women surrounding king and prince took part last month in the National Dialogue Forum where they were invited to express their views. They later travelled to the Royal Court in Riyadh to meet the king and the crown prince to brief them about the discussions. At the end of the meeting, a group picture was taken by the royal photographer, with each participant eventually getting a copy.
“Many people are saying the photo has a symbolic message for the nation,” suggesting “that the time has come for women to be recognised,” wrote Siraj Wahab, a senior editor with Arab News.
Under Saudi law, a woman cannot leave home without a male “guardian” (father, husband or brother) to whom she is legally subordinated. Women cannot drive a car, nor can they have any contacts with unrelated men. She cannot even pray in a mosque.
The situation has important economic repercussions on female employment and foreign investments because gender segregation applies to the workplace and foreign companies.
Cautiously, King Abdullah has been moving things along. Recently, Ahmed al-Ghamdi, director of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (Haia) in Makkah, said that men and women could pray together and meet freely albeit only in public.
The conservatives’ reaction was immediate (one even called for al-Ghamdi’s death). The Commission fired its Makkah chief, a move that it was eventually forced to cancel, Saudi Arabia’s official news agency SPA reported, because of the alleged intervention by the government.
Justice Minister Muhammad Al-Eissa said that people should not confuse situations in which unrelated men and women mingle in public, which is allowed in Islam, and gender mixing in private (ikhtilat), which is banned.
This photo “sent a message to the people that it is OK to work with women and be side by side with women, and that there's nothing wrong with that,” said Maha Muneef, a prominent physician and advisor to the governmental Shura council in Riyadh.
Basmah Al Omair, who runs a centre that lobbies for greater rights for women, agrees. “The whole point of (Abdullah’s) taking photos with women is to get people comfortable with the idea of men and women mixing," she said.
Indeed, gender segregation is becoming “the” battleground for Saudi Arabia’s various factions of Islamic scholars to fight over the country’s future.
Against those who have lined up behind the king, there is a large and strong contingent of conservatives who have support with the royal family.
One conservative scholar, Abdul Rahman Al-Barrak, wrote to Justice Minister Al-Eissa, urging him not to support “modernists.”
In his letter, he said, “Don’t be the keys for evil” to pervade “among the Ummah (the Islamic community) by belittling and underestimating that which the enemies of God . . . want in terms of changing the condition of this beloved Kingdom.”