Acouple of weeks ago, one of the religious leaders here in Saudi Arabia declared a fatwa (a religious ruling) which demands the death penalty for people in the Kingdom who condone or promote gender mixing within the country. In particular, Sheikh Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak, 77, denounced men and women working together because it would encourage "sight of what is forbidden, and forbidden talk between men and women." With the opening last fall of KAUST (the innovative King Abdullah University of Sciences and Technology), where the progressive King's vision came to fruition in a place where highly educated men and women work and attend classes together, it appears as though this Sheikh is taking aim at the King himself. Not a very smart thing to do. Especially in view of the fact that last October the King took the action of promptly firing a top Islamic cleric after he spouted off against the mixing of the sexes at KAUST.
The Sheikh's website, albarrak.islamlight.net, has been blocked from viewing now within the country. But allegedly, using modern technology to his advantage, he merely opened up under another website.
There has been a backlash of objections from many people here who want to see progress and change in this ultra-conservative religious country, with fellow blogger Ahmed al-Omran of SaudiJeans calling the Sheikh a "caveman" and Saudi female blogger Eman al-Nafjan of SaudiWoman condemning Al-Barrak as "the last living member of the traditional, misogynist eighties rat pack of sheikhdom" and aptly branding his type of barbaric thinking as "Gender Apartheid."
However, about thirty other conservative clerics rushed to Al-Barrak's defense by signing a petition upholding their support of his ruling in favor of strict gender segregation.
The greatest fear among these religious scholars is that mixing of the sexes socially here in Saudi Arabia, in the work force, or in education will result in rampant fornication and other immoral behavior. Here are a couple of more quotes from Al-Barrak taken from this Reuters article: "Whoever allows this mixing ... allows forbidden things, and whoever allows them is an infidel, and this means defection from Islam ... Either he retracts or he must be killed ... because he disavows and does not observe the Sharia ... Anyone who accepts that his daughter, sister or wife works with men or attends mixed-gender schooling cares little about his honour, and this is a type of pimping." Really? This guy is actually calling Saudi men who allow their female relatives to work or attend school side by side with other unrelated men PIMPS!!!
For those of you who read my blog regularly, you know that one of the things that I really dislike about living here is the gender segregation. Going to a family function, or a wedding, or some other kind of party where there are only women allowed or where I am separated from my husband and my son upon arrival is not my idea of fun. It's okay once in a while, but time after time after time, it gets really old for me. I admit it - I enjoy being in the company of BOTH men and women! And the fact that people here cannot be trusted on their own to conduct themselves with the utmost of decorum and virtue - despite all the morality that is drilled into them from birth - so much so that there is a need for religious police to enforce strict moral codes and punish those who do not adhere to the rules - is just beyond my comprehension.
Muslims in other parts of the world seem to successfully incorporate living and working amongst the opposite sex without much trouble or fanfare. Why can't it be that simple here in Saudi Arabia? It's more than just religion at play here - it is deeply engrained in the culture, and there is a long way to go to bring this country into the 21st century with regard to its social limitations on both men and women (but mostly on women). The people here have been brainwashed by so many lop-sided images about the decadent and immoral West that there is a mentality of great fear for change or opening up this society to more freedom. My take on the whole situation is that the social restrictions placed on the people here are extremely insulting to the Saudis and make the assumption that the Saudi people simply cannot control their animalistic urges and conduct themselves accordingly. The Saudi people are better than that. All they need is a chance to prove it.