Top Saudi Arabian religious officials have begun to endorse a clear distinction between the innocent meddling of the sexes and sinful behavior in recent weeks.
For decades, agents of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, (religious police) have enforced a strict separation of the sexes in Saudi Arabia. This policy has circumscribed the lives of women and girls and in some instances has resulted in tragic deaths.
In 2002, the religious police stopped girls from leaving their burning school because they were not wearing strict Islamic dress. The police also stopped men who tried to rescue the girls, warning, “It is sinful to approach them.” Several girls died.
Now, it seems, this was all a mistake. Religious officials have declared that prohibitions against the mixing of the sexes in public places come from conservative tribal customs not the rules of sharia.
This sort of confusion is nothing new, nor is it unique to Islam or Saudi Arabia. Religion has long been used as a way to reinforce ethnic and cultural traditions that limit the rights of women and girls, including the right to inheritance and access to education, healthcare and decent work. Religion has also been used to justify harmful cultural practices such as FGM and child marriage.
It is to be hoped that religious leaders throughout the world will continue on this path of making honest distinctions between true religious law and discriminatory practices against women and girls that have their roots in custom and tradition.