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Saudi Arabia is moving full steam ahead to catch up with the 21st century. Mired for decades in restrictive social and religious bindings, the kingdom has finally begun to shake the shackles off in an effort to turn this country into a better place to live and bring it in line with the rest of the civilised world.

And the results are inspiring as more and more of the young population of the country appreciates the remarkable changes that have taken place in a relatively short time in recent years, changes once deemed unthinkable.

But that does not mean that the road to progress has been without some bumps. This is a country which until recently had religious leaders and university professors pontificating on every aspect of Saudi life, and in most cases, it was an echo of practices followed thousands of years ago, notwithstanding the fact that we were living in a global village in the 21st century.

Gender mixing

Not too long ago, the issue of gender mixing was looked upon as outrightly sinful and cursed be those who remotely even suggested that. I remember of an instance when a leading professor of Islamic jurisprudence at Imam Muhammad Bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh suggested that the Grand Mosque in Makkah be rebuilt to prevent the mingling of men and women.

His basis for such a statement was that “Mingling of sexes is not allowed in the Grand Mosque and outside the mosque according to the Sharia. There are two types of mingling of sexes; mingling that takes place casually in the passages and at the Jamarat (stoning of Devil) in Mina; and permanent mingling that takes place during tawaf causing congestion and harm to women. This engineering solution will give women privacy and keep them away from cameras that project them and show them on satellite channels. Is it not the right of women not to battle with men during tawaf? Is it not their right to have one or two floors to perform tawaf and what is wrong in reconstructing the mosque for this purpose?”

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Also comes to mind the efforts of a Saudi woman who had garnered some support in her call to segregate the medical profession. She was undoubtedly disturbed at the proximity of mingling between the sexes at medical institutions and had launched a social campaign against such an atmosphere, bolstered by the support of the women-only backers of which there were plenty at the time.

The primary objection was to the mixing of the genders. Such hospitals would increase the number of Saudi women doctors and nurses, whose numbers are very low now because their parents will not allow them to join the medical profession for fear of “gender-mixing”.

Sharia-compliant environment

The negative social image women in the medical profession carry about them (news to me), which have prevented many young men from marrying nurses. “Many young men are reluctant to marry nurses because of rumours that they indulge in secret relations with their male colleagues” added another supporter to this campaign.

The campaign asked for government hospitals run by women in order to “provide a clean, healthy and Sharia-compliant environment for women working in the health sector and increase job opportunities for them,” undoubtedly spurred by the notion that there existed a lack of privacy and freedom to work in today’s hospital environments. Fortunately, the government had more pressing issues on mind and neglected to take them up on their request.

Just very recently, a government mandate that allows boys and girls to attend school together up to the 3rd grade of primary school caused a flutter of objection by people moulded along the same patterns of anti-gender mixing. Although classes would be segregated and separate break rooms and toilet facilities were provided, female teachers would be guiding the young boys. Some parents then approached the courts to overturn this decision while others took to social media to express their displeasure at the Ministry of Education’s verdict to allow integration.

The ministry’s reasoning was that ‘This project will bridge the gap young boys used to face after moving from kindergarten to primary school. The classes at early childhood schools are specially designed to fit their needs at this age, and being taught by women will give them a more fruitful learning experience.’

It is indeed a very rational statement and one that many parents have not objected to. But there are always some who are stuck back in time and will find any reason to try and prevent this country from moving full steam ahead.

— Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena