Saudis Debate Gender Segregation

Saudis Debate Gender Segregation (23 April 2010)

By Rob L. Wagner


There is perhaps no greater debate in Saudi Arabia’s coffee houses and sheesha parlors in recent months than about ikhtilat, the mixing of men and women in public. Women driving cars, the soaring unemployment rate or the crumbling infrastructure of the Kingdom’s cosmopolitan city of Jeddah are not even close to raising Saudis’ blood pressure like issue of men and women mixing in the same room.

The Commission on the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, commonly known as the Hai’a or the Mutaween, Saudi newspaper columnists, clerics and even the Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Al-Asheik have weighed on whether gender segregation is a modern concept or rooted deep in Islam.

The controversy was sparked when the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) opened last year just outside of Jeddah as Saudi Arabia’s first coeducational campus. Some Saudi clerics have deemed gender mixing at the university as haram, or illegal. One vocal cleric was forced to resign and King Abdullah has ignored repeated calls to segregate the campus. The issue, however, took an unexpected turn in December.

Sheikh Ahmad Qassim Al-Ghamdi, chief of the Makkah region’s Hai’a, told the Arabic-language daily newspaper Okaz that ikhtilat has no basis in Shariah, or Islamic law, and has been incorrectly applied in the Saudi judicial system.

“Mixing was part of normal life for the Ummah and its societies,” Al-Ghamdi said told Okaz. “The word in its contemporary meaning has entered customary jurisprudential terminology from outside. Those who prohibit the mixing of the genders actually live it in their real lives, which is an objectionable contradiction as every fair-minded Muslim should follow Shariah judgments without excess or negligence.

“In many Muslim houses – even those of Muslims who say mixing is haram – you can find female servants working around unrelated males,” he added.

Al-Ghamdi echoes a common complaint among Saudi women who often argue that Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving in most parts of the county force them into a state of khalwa with male taxi and family drivers. Khalwa, which is forbidden in Saudi Arabia, is defined as a man and woman meeting in a private place that could raise doubts about their morality. An automobile can be considered a private place.

The difference between khalwa and ikhtilat, however, is that khalwa is indeed discussed in the Holy Qur’an while there is no specific mention of ikhtilat. Al-Ghamdi’s argument, and that of a number of Saudi Islamic scholars, is clear: In 15th century Arabia women prayed at the same mosques as men, tended to injured men during wartime, were vendors in the marketplace and even served as arbitrators in business disputes. Simply, women worked alongside men in virtually any capacity.

Al-Ghamdi argues that ahadeeths – sayings of the Prophet Muhammad – does not support prohbiting ikhtilat.

“Those who prohibit ikhtilat cling to weak ahadeeths, while the correct ahadeeth proves that mixing is permissible, contrary to what they claim,” he said in the Okaz interview.

Culture, Not Religion

There’s a saying Saudis like to tell visitors to Saudi Arabia: “It’s the culture, not the religion.” The driving ban, the niqab and even a heightened sense that Saudi women need protection, even if it means the loss of their freedom, are mostly the result of culture and not religion. Tribal customs run deep and have taken root in the Saudi judicial system, often pushing aside Shariah when verdicts in domestic, civil and criminal cases are rendered. When there is doubt about the meaning of an ahadeeth, clerics tend to rule conservatively.

“Usually clerics follow simple logic if the Holy Qur’an does not specifically address a moral issue,” said a Saudi journalist who asked that she not be identified. “If the Qur’an does not address the subject, then the clerics will err on the side of caution and make it haram. The driving ban for women is the best example.”

Gray Area

Gender segregation also falls into this gray area. Prohibiting gender mixing can be traced only to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Women born before 1950, for example, can recall driving trucks, inviting unmarried men into their homes for tea as long as the front door was open and walking about with no abaya or niqab.

“I don’t recall ever seeing my mother wear the abaya when I was a kid and she drove anywhere she pleased,” recalled a 55-year-old Saudi university professor.

The same can’t be said for Saudis born after 1965 and who came of age during the Islamic Revolution and the 1979 siege of the Grand Mosque in Makkah by militants. The attack on Islam’s holiest site, which left nearly 400 people dead, was Saudi Arabia’s darkest period in its history and traumatized the entire population. It also marked the implementation of more stringent codes, including strict gender segregation rules, and the rise in power of the Hia’a. Almost overnight, the old lifestyle disappeared.

While a great many Saudis, especially those under the age of 25, want to see an easing of gender segregation rules, most Saudis are quick to support the no-mixing ban whether or not it has roots in Islam. All government offices strictly enforce segregation among men and women and in essence lead by example for the private sector. But private businesses are not required to prohibit ikhtilat. The English-language newspapers Arab News and Saudi Gazette, both based in Jeddah, allow mixing and some Arabic-language dailies have followed.

Modern Society

Yet three decades of enforced segregation is a hard habit to break. And when Saudis look for answers they inevitably look to the past.

“In the old days women’s appearance and the way they dressed were neutral,” said a 38-year-old Saudi professional woman who was educated in the West and did not want her name published. “There were no makeup and the perfumes that we have today that attract men. Women were equal to men. Mixing was routine. Women today are different. They wear makeup and wear perfume and that can be seducing to men. This should require a controlled environment.”

But she points out that under specific circumstances, gender mixing is entirely appropriate. She notes that secondary schools should be segregated because teenagers are exploring social limits and are more concerned with relationships and education. “In the workplace or the university level we are there to work and we behave as professionals. At that level we are mature enough to handle ourselves responsibly.”

A 33-year-old Saudi high school teacher said that Saudi society has already lost ground in maintaining a moral code.

“I was studying in the United States and returned here after 9/11,” he said. “I was shocked at the behavior of these young girls. Meeting boys in coffee shops and wearing the hijab loosely. It’s only gotten worse. Of course, I want to see us go back to the way it once was.”

The high school teacher and female professional typify many Saudis who feel the same way and who don’t necessarily applaud Sheikh Al-Ghamdi’s gender mixing campaign. Al-Ghamdi has been under consistent fire since his first pronouncements on ikhtilat.

He has raised the ire of Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Al-Asheik when Al-Ghamdi forwarded Al-Asheik his extensive research on ikhtilat. Not only did Al-Asheik refuse to read the material, but he told Al-Ghamdi to mind his own business and leave the interpretation of Shariah to the professionals.

Al-Ghamdi repeated his position on ikhtilat so often to other media outlets that Al-Madinah newspaper reported this month that Al-Ghamdi had been fired from his post and his replacement was poised to occupy his office. Al-Ghamdi denied that he was fired and remains the Makkah chief of the Hia’a.

While Al-Ghamdi may still have his job, he has been pitted against some of Saudi Arabia’s most influential religious men. Sheikh Muhammad Al-Nujaimi, professor of Comparative Jurisprudence at the Higher Institute of Law at the Imam Muhammad Bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh and who is also a member of the Academy of Shariah Scholars in the United States, has gone on the popular Saudi television program Al-Bayina to publicly oppose gender mixing. Al-Nujaimi also supports a fatwa, or religious opinion, issued by Sheikh Abdul Rahman Al-Barrak that forbids men and women to in the workplace and schools. Al-Nujaimi’s credibility took a hit, though, when a videotape surfaced of him mingling with about 20 unrelated women at a conference in Kuwait. He initially denied attending the conference and implied the photos of him and the women were photoshoped. He later admitted to attending the conference.

On the sidelines of this drama is the reform-minded King Abdullah who has made sure that KAUST is unaffected by the brouhaha. The King’s position ever since he assumed the throne in 2005 was to effect reform when Saudi society is ready for it. In the case of gender mixing there is no clear-cut answer whether Saudis are ready for a change.