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SAUDI ARABIA: Elderly woman to be lashed for mingling with men

March 11, 2009 |  8:46 am

Saudiwomen

Last week, a 75-year-old Saudi woman was sentenced to 40 lashes and four months in prison for receiving two unrelated men in her home.

It didn't matter that they were only delivering bread, or that she is elderly and practically raised one of the men as her her son. In Saudi Arabia, the law strictly bans a woman from mixing with men unrelated to her by blood or marriage.

The verdict has not yet been carried out. The news created an outcry among intellectuals in the ultraconservative kingdom, where a religiously minded police and judiciary have a wide authority to implement the strict Wahabi vision of Islam.

The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice can stop women for not wearing the Islamic veil or raid parties where men and women are suspected to be mixing or consuming alcohol.

Hope has been pinned on some members of the forward-thinking Saudi leadership to advance the condition of women, who are prohibited from driving cars and are not allowed to travel without the permission of their husbands, fathers or brothers.

The kingdom boasts women-only banks, hotels and shopping centers.

In a surprising move, King Abdullah appointed last month the first woman to a ministerial post. Norah al-Fayez was elevated to the new post of deputy minister of women's education.

The reform might look insignificant in a region where women have already reached top governmental positions.

But many observers say that the royal family has so far been unable to push social reforms because it needs to win the favor of the ultraconservative religious police to protect its rule amid continuing threats from Al Qaeda.

Still, King Abdullah is bidding to undermine Islamic hard-liners.

He recently dismissed a leading fundamentalist cleric and the head of the kingdom's religious police, Sheik Ibrahim Ghaith.

The monarch also removed Sheik Saleh Lihedan as chief of the country's highest religious tribunal. The man issued a fatwa in September saying it was permissible to kill TV executives for broadcasting "evil" and immoral programs.

The previous conviction of Khamisa Sawadi, who is Syrian but was married to a Saudi, for seeing men who were not her immediate relatives proved for many the backwardness of the religious judiciary.

One of the two men was Sawadi’s late husband’s nephew and the other one was his friend. The religious police arrested the three based on “citizen information.” 

“Because she said she doesn’t have a husband and because she is not a Saudi, conviction of the defendants of illegal mingling has been confirmed,” the court verdict read.

Saudi journalists criticized the decision. One columnist, Laila Ahmed al-Ahdab in the local daily Al Watan, accused religious authorities of “misusing religion to serve their own interests.”

-- Raed Rafei in Beirut

Photo: Saudi women attend the "Spring Al Riyadh" festival in Riyadh last year. In a country where strict Islamic doctrine demands segregation and prevents women from driving or working and traveling freely, a handful of changes in the past two months suggests an increase of freedoms for women, activists say. Credit: Hassan Ammar / AFP / Getty Images

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