Tuesday, January 20, 2004

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) — Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority said yesterday that Saudi women appearing without their veils in the presence of men “cause the doors of evil to open.”

Grand Mufti Sheik Abdulaziz bin Abdullah al-Sheik’s remarks came after Saudi Arabia’s leading businesswoman, Lubna Olayan, who delivered the opening speech at an economic conference in the Red Sea port of Jidda this week, was shown on the front pages of local newspapers without a head scarf.

“This is prohibited for all. … I severely condemn this matter and warn of grave consequences. I am pained by such shameful behavior in the country of the two holy mosques,” Sheik Abdulaziz said in remarks carried by the state Saudi Press Agency.

Men and women at the conference were segregated by a screen, but women were able to cross over into the men’s section — portrayed by some Saudi journalists as a sign of liberalization in the conservative country.

Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, is ruled by an alliance of the House of Saud and powerful Wahhabi religious authorities.

Under Saudi Arabia’s Shariah law, women are required to be covered fully in public. Contact with men outside their immediate families is limited.

Sheik Abdulaziz said those who strayed from what he called the righteous path should fear God and His punishment. “They cause the doors of evil to open before the people of Islam,” SPA quoted him as saying.

“What was published in some newspapers about this being the start of liberating the Saudi woman … such talk is null and void. One’s duty is to obey Shariah by complying with orders and shunning that which is forbidden.”

Female speakers at the conference called for unlocking the potential of women in the work force.

Economists say women make up more than half the graduates from Saudi universities but just 5 percent of the work force.

The kingdom, facing a wave of militant violence and growing economic challenges, has embarked on a program of cautious reform despite fierce opposition from some religious figures.

Crown Prince Abdullah has promised municipal elections this year, although it is not known if women will be allowed to vote.

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