A prominent Saudi cleric is making the case for breaking down a major taboo in the kingdom, where social mores are evolving rapidly under 33-year-old Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
Gender segregation has reached the level of a “kind of phobia,” Adel Al-Kalbani said on a state-sponsored television channel this week, arguing that in the era of the Prophet Mohammad, men and women prayed together.
“Now unfortunately we’ve become paranoid to the level that in a mosque, a place of worship, it’s as if women are in a fortress,” he said. “They’re completely isolated from the men, not seeing or hearing them except through microphones or speakers.”
Al-Kalbani is a former imam of Mecca’s grand mosque and a well-known Koran reciter. He’s not a government official and can’t issue rulings, but his words have sway with his nearly 7 million Twitter followers and the viewers of his show, aired on government-sponsored SBC.
That a well-known Saudi cleric would dare to question gender segregation in mosques — a common practice across the Muslim world — reflects the increasingly permissive social atmosphere promoted by the prince, whose plan for life after oil calls for attracting foreign investment and loosening social restrictions. At the same time, greater social freedoms have been accompanied by a crackdown on political dissent.
The conservative Islamic kingdom was once infamous for its strict gender segregation, enforced by religious police and enshrined in separate facilities at banks and government offices. Even most restaurants and cafes have two entrances, seating “singles” — men on their own — away from “families,” a euphemism for women and mixed groups.
Those rules have softened over the past few years, especially after the powers of the religious police were curbed in 2016. Men and women began mingling at conferences and government events, then danced together at state-sponsored concerts, shocking some Saudis and thrilling others. More recently, higher-end restaurants in Riyadh have been discreetly getting rid of their “family sections” — mixing male and female diners freely.
“We can’t exclude women,” Al-Kalbani said during his show, noting approvingly that several Saudi women have been appointed to important government positions recently.
Given the kingdom’s tight rein on clerical speech, it’s unlikely he would have made such comments if he thought they wouldn’t be welcome. Still, they stirred controversy, and many Saudis took to social media to oppose or mock him.
“In that era, the women praying were the prophet’s wives and the men were the prophet’s companions,” Saudi Snapchat star Mansour Al Rokibh wrote on Twitter — implying that people today don’t possess the same moral character.
Even with the changes sweeping the kingdom, many Saudis support gender segregation, viewing it as a religious mandate. Separation still exists in many public and private places, including mosques, where women pray in different rooms or behind thick wooden barriers.
“This is a kind of phobia of women, fear of them, doubt in them,” Al-Kalbani said. “Until recently we were scared to give her a car, to let her go out,” he added, referring to the kingdom’s ban on women driving, lifted last year.
“God willing, this phobia will disappear after the decisions that did justice by women,” he said.