Clerics want to restrict women praying at Mecca
Riyadh, Aug 28: Saudi clerics want to impose restrictions on women praying at Islam's holiest shrine in Mecca, one of the few places where male and female worshippers can intermingle.
But women activists in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of the religion where a strict version of Islam is state orthodoxy, say the idea is discriminatory and have vowed to oppose it.
At present, women can pray in the immediate vicinity of the Kaaba, a cube-shaped structure inside the mosque which pilgrims walk around seven times during the haj pilgrimage according to ancient rites established by Prophet Mohammad.
Plans by the all-male committee overseeing the holy sites would place women in a distant section of the mosque while men would still be able to pray in the key space.
''The area is very small and so crowded. So we decided to get women out of the 'sahn' (Kaaba area) to a better place where they can see the Kaaba and have more space,'' said Osama al-Bar, head of the Institute for Haj Research.
''Some women thought it wasn't good, but from our point of view it will be better for them ... We can sit with them and explain to them what the decision is (about),'' he said. The decision is not final and could be reversed, he added.
Pushing and shoving is common in the tight space around the Kaaba where thousands of pilgrims crowd during the haj season.
The plans are likely to provoke a furore among Muslim women in countries whose Islamic traditions are more liberal than Saudi Arabia.
Ordinary Muslims say it as a basic right to be able to pray as close as possible to the Kaaba which Islam regards as the place where God's presence is most felt on Earth. It is towards the Kaaba that Muslims around the world turn when praying.
''Both men and women have the right to pray in the 'House of God'. Men have no right to take it away,'' said Suhaila Hammad, Saudi woman member of a body of world Muslim scholars.
''Men and women mix when they circumambulate the Kaaba, so do they want to make us do that somewhere else too?'' she asked. ''This is discrimination against women.'' The Grand Mosque is one of the few places where men and women can pray together in Islam although technically there are separate spaces for each gender throughout the vast complex.
Religious police charged with imposing order according to Saudi Arabia's austere Wahhabi brand of Islam often harass women who decide to pray outside the prescribed areas.
Historian Hatoun al-Fassi said the move to restrict women's prayer in the mosque would be a first in Islamic history.
''Perhaps they want women to disappear from any public prayer area and when it comes to the holy mosques that's their ultimate aim,'' she said, adding the religious authorities recently restricted women's access at the Prophet's tomb in Medina.