Saudi Arabia’s most senior Islamic cleric has condemned women who mingled unveiled among men at a business conference this week, saying their actions could cause “evil and catastrophe”.
Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh, the grand mufti of the desert kingdom, made his comments after the country’s top businesswoman called for reform and pictures of her supporters – without headscarves – appeared on newspaper front pages.
“Allowing women to mix with men is the root of every evil and catastrophe,” he said. “It is highly punishable. Mixing of men and women is a reason for greater decadence and adultery.
“This is prohibited for all. I severely condemn this matter and warn of grave consequences. I am pained by such shameful behaviour in the country of the two holy mosques [Mecca and Medina].
Analysts said the mufti’s declaration, which also condemned women who did not wear “the Islamic hijab ordered by God”, was a clear attempt by religious authorities to limit political reforms.
Jeddah’s annual three-day Economic Forum had opened with a call for change by the country’s most prominent businesswoman, Lubna al-Olayan, the chief executive of Olayan Financing Company.
“Without real change there can be no real progress. If we in Saudi Arabia want to progress we have no choice but to embrace change,” she said to sustained applause at what is billed as the Middle East’s leading think tank.
Three hundred mostly unveiled businesswomen, separated by screens from 1,000 businessmen, watched her performance in awe. Inspired by her call for change, dozens stepped up to the microphone to praise her.
Such was the impact of her unprecedented speech that her photograph and those of other women at the conference were splashed across the strictly Muslim kingdom’s front pages, crediting her with striking a major blow for the liberation of Saudi women.