Saudi Arabia's top cleric on Friday warned against the mixing of the genders, saying it poses a threat to female chastity and society, as the kingdom prepares for the first time to grant women seats on the country's top advisory body.
Delivering his traditional Friday sermon, Grand Mufti Sheik Abdul-Aziz Al-Sheik said authorities must adhere to Shariah, or Islamic law, by ensuring men and women are separated as much as possible at all times. The cleric's comments come just weeks ahead of allowing women to be members of the 150-member Shura Council, the country's top advisory body.
Since 2006, women have been appointed as advisors to the council - an appointed, consultative body that has the authority to review laws and question ministers but cannot propose or veto legislation. There are currently 12 female advisors, but they do not have a right to vote in the assembly.
The move by King Abdullah to allow women a voice on the Shura Council is part of a larger reform effort by the monarchy to give women greater space in the public sphere. Last year, the kingdom began enforcing a law that allows women to work in female apparel and lingerie stores.
Religious leaders, including the grand mufti, have spoken out against such reforms.
The country is guided by an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam called Wahhabism. In the kingdom, women cannot travel, work, study abroad, marry, get divorced or gain admittance to a public hospital without permission from a male guardian - typically a husband, brother, father or uncle.
While Al-Sheik has spoken out in support of granting women the right to vote in 2015 alongside men in the nation's only open elections, he has criticized the decision to allow women to work in apparel stores, saying that it puts them in contact with men unrelated to them.
"It is necessary for women to be separated from men as much as possible, because this great religion protects the chastity of women against evil and corruption," Al-Sheik told worshippers at the Imam Turki mosque in Riyadh.
While his Friday sermon focused mainly on corruption in the kingdom, the grand mufti stressed that it is forbidden in Islam for a woman to stand before a man unveiled, warning that to do so will destroy the morals and values of society. The veil in Saudi Arabia refers to the full face covering worn by most women in the ultraconservative kingdom.
The Saudi government has not said how many women will be given seats on the Shura Council. Some local papers have suggested that women would be separated from the men in the assembly hall by a barrier, while others have suggested that women communicate via an internal video system.
However, those pushing for reform point to a recent council session where the country's top female official, deputy Education Minister Nura al-Fayez, sat in a full face veil and took part in the dialogue alongside the men.
"It sends a message to the conservatives that this is the example for women's participation in the Shura Council," Hatoon Al-Fassi, a columnist and professor of women's history in King Saud University said, adding that it also suggests this is what the king supports.
She said she is among many in Saudi Arabia who are rejecting a symbolic presence of women in the assembly.
"At the end we are not behind the scenes," Al-Fassi said. "We are asking for equality and for half of the council, or what is 75 seats."
Al-Fassi and other Saudi women have been pushing the government for social reforms and greater rights for women, including allowing women the right to drive and for the dissolution of male guardianship laws. Saudi women have staged protests defying the driving ban.
She said that there is pressure from the religious establishment to keep to a minimum the number of seats for women in the advisory body.
"I believe that the religious establishment will insist on forcing its opinion to resist the kingdom's progressive reforms, but as women we are insisting on building society hand in hand."
Batrawy contributed to this report from Cairo.