Conservative forces and modernizers are struggling over the role of women in Saudi society.
- The G8 and Eurozone Clouds
- Greek Tipping Point on the Horizon
- Syria's Bloody Stalemate
- Council of Europe Civil Law Convention on Corruption
While I was visiting Saudi Arabia last week, King Abdullah fired one of the most popular Islamic leaders in the Kingdom from his government position. Sheikh Abdel Mohsen Obeikan was an advisor to the royal court until last week when, in a single line, the king ordered that the sheikh resign from his post. The reaction was swift. In newspapers, on Facebook, and on Twitter, Obeikan's supporters and detractors speculated, gloated over, and lamented the sheikh's inglorious fall. While it is still not clear what happened, it is safe to say that this is yet another episode in Saudi Arabia's internal struggle to define the role of women in society.
I met Sheikh Obeikan some years ago when my colleague Rachel Bronson and I interviewed him at his palatial home in Riyadh. (The Obeikan family owns an empire of printing, packaging, publishing, and education companies.) At one point during our interview, our translator stopped translating and embarked on an animated conversation with Obeikan. When we pulled him back to the task at hand, the translator apologized, saying he was just so excited to have an opportunity to speak with the great sheikh. At the time, Obeikan waxed eloquently about the need for gradual change in Saudi Arabia, but it seems he's been singing a different tune more recently. In the two weeks preceding his dismissal, Obeikan made several statements on his radio show "Fatawakum," or "Your Fatwas," about proposed reforms to the Saudi judicial system and specifically, the role of women. (The title of the radio show was "The Meaning of Women in the Courts.") He complained (Arabic) about plans to Westernize society and "the Saudi woman" and to replace Sharia courts with man-made laws. He stressed his opposition to women mixing with men during court proceedings and complained that neither the minister of justice nor the head of the court paid his objection any heed. During the hour long interview, he praised King Abdullah for founding Princess Nora University for women, the largest all-female university in the world with 50,000 students. But he inveighed against gender mixing of male and female students at other universities-calling it deviant. Although he didn't name names, he was likely objecting to gender mixing at King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST), one of the King's favored projects. When KAUST opened in September of 2009, another senior cleric, Sheikh Saad al-Shethry, also publicly criticized the new university for gender mixing, and King Abdullah fired him too.