Saudi religious cop says 'no need' for women to cover up

Published: December 1, 2010
Muslim women pray outside Makkah's Grand Mosque. PHOTO: AFP

Muslim women pray outside Makkah's Grand Mosque. PHOTO: AFP

JEDDAH: A Saudi religious police commander criticised the kingdom’s ban on gender mixing on Tuesday and said women did not have to veil their faces to applause from his female audience.

Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi, outspoken head of the Makkah branch of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, also said there was nothing in Islam to prevent women from driving, despite the Saudi ban on the practice.

“There is a difference in interpretation of the (Quranic) verse… which leads some scholars to rule that the whole body must be covered… However other scholars approve showing the face, hands and elbows. And some even okayed the hair,” he said.

He said the kingdom’s mixing ban should be applied only to men and women meeting in secret, not in public places, a rule normally enforced by the religious police.

Islam “orders a woman to cover her body to allow her to participate in social life, not to prevent her from doing so,” he said.

The women in the audience, all clad in the all-black shroud-like abaya they must wear, broke out in applause.

Ghamdi, who was mysteriously fired and reinstated in April after breaking ranks with the religious police to endorse mixing, was speaking at a conference on “Women’s Participation in National Development”, where the hot issue was the barriers posed by Saudi Arabia’s ultra-strict ban on women working.

Because Saudi women are not permitted to mix with unrelated men, must have a male guardian and are not permitted to drive, there are huge limitations on their employment opportunities.

Recently, top religious officials strongly objected to a labour ministry effort to allow Saudi women to work as cashiers in supermarkets.

Labour Minister Adel Fakieh said on Tuesday that 200,000 women in the kingdom, or 44 percent of the workforce, were unemployed, and that of them 157,000 had degrees above the level of high school.

“The unemployed women are educated above high school, while unemployed men mostly don’t have degrees,” he said.

Meanhwile, the country’s sole female minister, Deputy Education Minister Noura al-Fayez, also came in for criticism for not having achieved much in terms of women’s educational advancement and opportunities.

She urged the audience of Saudi women to have patience, and told them she could do little about certain issues, like the high accident rate for rural women teachers who must travel great distances to work because they are not permitted to live away from their families.

On Monday, King Abdullah’s daughter Princess Adela bint Abdullah said a greater effort was needed to provide jobs for Saudi women.

“Women’s participation (in the workforce) is behind expectation. A society cannot walk with a limping leg,” she said.

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Reader Comments (11)

  • Raju
    Dec 1, 2010 - 6:48PM

    very nice to hear ! ! ! give them all fundamental rights.after all they are roots of our societyRecommend

  • ahsan
    Dec 1, 2010 - 7:26PM

    I dont understand the point of discussing such issues. when its clearly stated in the Quran that women must cover them when they go outside their home and in front of non-family members than why we are making new laws and interpretation.Recommend

  • Ashutosh
    Dec 1, 2010 - 7:58PM

    I am particularly very proud of Indian Muslims and strongly believe that they are Indian first and will lay down their life with the same zeal a s any Indian will do, when the time comes.
    In my general conduct I cautiously try to ensure that I or others are not discriminating against them.

    But in case of a burka clad lady, I am very hesitant to approach her or even a man accompanying her. I keep away, believing that they may be very conservative and wants me to stay from her.

    This might look like I am discriminating. I don’t want to give me the benefit of doubt as the times are not normal for Muslims in the entire world.

    My question is “Is a burka is a message to others (specially men) to keep away?” In other words, can i walk up to the lady in burka and say hello, how do u do ..etc in a social gathering or ask for directions in the street?

    Looking for comments or suggestions. Recommend

  • saher
    Dec 1, 2010 - 11:38PM

    @ahsan…. it isnt a new interpretation.. real interpretation was hijacked the day we decided we are going to follow one of the four school of thoughts regarding islam and Quran’s interpretation around 9th 10th century. yes there are verses in Quran about covering for women in general and a particular detailed account regarding the dressing of Prophet’s (pbuh) wives. and the verse which is used for describing who is exempted from seeing ur face or hair is more pertinent to the rule of whom you cannot marry.anyways we love complicating things for our benefit :) following tafseers instead of understanding the Book first.

    what escapes my mind is if the niqab’s idea was so strong in those days and hiding the identity was so important then why do we know so many women by name who did so much for Islam… and for many we also know how beautiful they were…

    @ashutosh.. burqa, hijab or niqab means only communicate if necessary, important. and yes u can ask for directions but not for a date :)Recommend

  • G. Din
    Dec 2, 2010 - 3:34AM

    Give them a break, for crying out loud. What right does a man have to smother and stifle a woman who is another human being? This is the worse kind of slavery!!!Recommend

  • Vin
    Dec 2, 2010 - 6:23AM

    Prophet (PBUH) once asked Ayesha to go inside as he received a blind man at home, Ayesha asked why so Sir when the man is blind? Prophet replied “He is blind but you are not”..
    What more proof does a muslim want to prove that a woman must be in covered…
    My question is why should the woman pay the price for the lasciviousness of a Man? Why cant the man be put in Burqa? Or why cant the man have some sort of a device attached to his heartbeat that indicates as he gets immoral thoughts, such a divice is not very difficult to make…..I think Muslim women must work towards inventing such a device and force the mullahs to get that applied on men…this would atleast allow the woman to breath fresh air….Recommend

  • Yasir
    Dec 2, 2010 - 8:45AM

    Wahabism is failing even in Saudia its home country, but not in Pakistan alas.Recommend

  • Dec 2, 2010 - 10:44AM

    I second Saher’s thought here and she raised all the points that I wanted to particularly after reading Ahsan’s comments. You see, Islam isn’t as rigid as our scholars have made it. Even when you to go Ka’aba for performing hajj or Umrah – which happens to be the biggest Muslim ritual and mandatory, so as to speak. In fact, did it ever occurred to you that millions of Muslims from all over the World come to gather in one place – men and women alike and for women, it is strictly mentioned to hide the hair and the body properly – not the face. Even if you wear loose clothes that properly cover your body does it right.

    Islam said laid down the boundaries for us – those who try to play it up only add their own flavor to it, how they feel is right. Recommend

  • Jaff Syed
    Dec 2, 2010 - 12:29PM

    We should understand the context of the topic and what that religious cop said. its regarding women not allowed to drive in saudia. he made a valid point that islam doesnt prevent women from driving even if they have re with veil. so what a big deal if they wud allow them to drive wearing veil…these are biddah’s actually n a fruit of wahabism over there. even in our Prophet’s life no such ban was imposed on women except that they should wear proper veil. Our prophet’s own wife Bibi Khadija (AS) was a business women. i don’t know what interpretations they want…anyways women should give their all fundamental rights staying within religious grounds. thanks.Recommend

  • Beebee
    Dec 2, 2010 - 4:22PM

    This whole business of women having to cover up is a figment of mens’ imagination. In fact segregation between men and women (among other things) is what keeps Muslim societies backward and has got nothing to do with Islam. Most muslim men, conservative or not, don’t ever learn the skills to deal with the opposite sex in a respectful way because the societal norm ingrained in their psyche is that a woman’s place is at home, a woman who is not covered from head to toe is probably fair game and should at least be ogled at.
    Men and women need to be exposed to each other in a healthy and mature way from an early age, only then will we be able to rid ourselves of the negative attitudes towards women.Recommend

  • Ashutosh
    Dec 2, 2010 - 11:18PM

    @ Saher,
    Thanks for the response.
    In other words, it is fair to keep away from a burka clad lady and her companion. They will never feel offended or discriminated. Am I right?
    Also I can take the defense that I kept away or did not socialize because she was wear a burka or he was accompanier a lady wearing it. Is that a fair defense?

    Is there a message for non-muslims as for as a burka is concerned? I mean a message like stay away…Recommend

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