n Journal for Islamic Studies - The gender segregation () debate in Saudi Arabia : reform and the clash between and liberals

Volume 30, Issue 1
  • ISSN : 0257-7062



Gender segregation, the forbiddance of (mixing of sexes) has been one of the defining features of Saudi Arabia. Saudi law enforces the separation of men and women in the public sphere, with the result that women have their own exclusive public spaces in schools, universities, charitable organizations, hospitals, restaurants, and government offices. As several researchers have pointed out this is partly an invented tradition. Since the 1970s conservatism has actively been promoted by the state. Music was banned from public spaces, television viewing was controlled. It was the forbidding of which was consistently promoted by the revivalist movement, conservative and the religious police who enforced public moral behaviour. After 9/11 and especially after the attacks by al-Qaeda on the Peninsula on Saudi soil in 2003-4, the trend has turned against Wahhabism as a conservative force. For many liberal Saudi intellectuals, Wahhabism has an ambivalent relationship with violence, hampers social and economic development and is an impediment to the necessary openness towards both the Western world but also to major parts of the Islamic world which regards Wahhabism as intolerant. The trend to restrict the overbearing power of religion and the social supervision of the official clerics is noticeable in the gradual reduction of various restrictions on women. In 2002 women were allowed to apply for an ID card and in 2007 they were permitted to study law. Gender mixing is becoming more widespread. For instance, has recently been permitted at exhibitions and book fairs. The pace of reform has increased after Prince 'Abdall?h became king in August 2005. His reforms have led to intense debates between the conservative who dominate the internet and the reformist opinion makers who control the so-called liberal press. Although the struggle is about reform in general and clerical control over society, the main confrontation has focused on the issue of .

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