Saudi gender war leads to dismissals left and right

Saudi gender war leads t

By BENJAMIN JOFFE-WALT / THE MEDIA LINE
December 16, 2009 15:33
3 minute read.

 
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When the Saudi king set out to build the Arab world's most advanced university on the northern shores of Jeddah, he may not have expected its founding to spark the largest theological war the kingdom has seen since women tried to drive through the streets of Riyadh. But for better or worse, that's the war King Abdullah seems to have on his hands. Opened in late September, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) is Saudi Arabia's first co-educational institution, with male and female students from over 60 countries studying side by side, unveiled women driving around the 14 square mile grounds, and no religious police on campus. Against the backdrop of a region that makes up only 1.1% of global scientific publishing, KAUST is one of the Arab world's most ambitious educational initiatives in over a decade and a source of pride for many Saudis. But not all Saudis are feeling appreciative, and the advent of mass gender mixing in an institution founded by the king is said to have caused a crisis for Saudi Arabia's conservative religious authorities, with support of KAUST becoming a cultural proxy war for whether or not women and men should be allowed to mix publicly. The debate began in October when Sheikh Saad bin Nasser al Shithri, a senior Saudi cleric, was fired by the king for publicly criticizing KAUST. That was followed last week by a surprise announcement from Sheikh Ahmed al Ghamdi, head of the Saudi Religious police in Mecca, who came out in favor of KAUST and against the khilwa sex segregation laws. "The word [khilwa] in its contemporary meaning has entered customary jurisprudential terminology from outside," Sheikh al Ghamdi said in an interview. "Mixing was part of normal life for the Ummah [Islamic nation] and its societies." Those who prohibit the mixing of the genders actually live it in their real lives, which is an objectionable contradiction," he said. "In many Muslim houses - even those of Muslims who say mixing is haram [forbidden]- you can find female servants working around unrelated males." Sheikh Al Ghamdi's comments caused a flood of criticism from hardline Saudi religious figures, some of whom have appeared on Saudi television accusing the sheikh of threatening the place of the religious police in the kingdom. Then on Tuesday, unconfirmed rumors that Al Ghamdi has also been fired were all over the Saudi press. "Everyone is shocked," Eman Al Nafjan, an influential Saudi blogger, told The Media Line. "Nobody knows what's going on." "The way Sheikh Ghamdi phrased his comments it was interpreted as him speaking on behalf of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice," she said. "That's probably what got the religious police to work behind the scenes to get him dismissed, but apparently it wasn't the king who dismissed him so maybe he will intervene." "Sheikh Shithri, on the other hand, said that King Abdullah doesn't know what's going on and that people are using the king to create the university," Al Nafjan said, referring to the original criticism of KAUST. "So it was not just a case of him having a problem with the mingling of the sexes, it was that he was disrespectful." "He specified KAUST," she added. "You can't just criticize the kingdom's largest project of the last four years. He should have spoken in more general terms." Wajiha Al-Huwaidar, a Saudi women's rights advocate, argued that the theological debate KAUST has engendered is a sign of diversity among the kingdom's religious authorities. "The religious authorities are very powerful and they don't hesitate to hurt anyone," she told The Media Line. "Extremists are in charge of the religious institutions in this country so when someone from inside says something like this he will be attacked." "At the same time, we have this idea that all religious people in Saudi feel the same about these laws but it's actually not true," she said. "I think Sheikh Ghamdi personally believes that men and women working and studying together is the right way to live. Mixing men and women is not against religion, and he is very brave for saying this." To date the Council of Senior Scholars, the highest religious authority in the kingdom, has yet to comment on KAUST.

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