Saudi Arabia’s Shaikh Abdul Aziz bin Al Al Shaikh, the grand mufti who has ministerial rank, issued a statement saying the board of top clerics had ruled that compelling women into marriage is "a major injustice" and "un-Islamic."

"Forcing a woman to marry someone she does not want and preventing her from wedding whom she chooses ... is not permissible. Anyone who insists on forcing a woman ... to marry against her will is disobeying God and His prophet (Mohammed) under Islamic law”, said Shaikh Abdul Aziz Al Shaikh, head of the Council of Senior Ulema (scholars), the kingdom's highest religious authority.

According to Saudi newspapers, about half of all marriages end in divorce. Forced marriage is believed to be the main reason behind the sharp increase in divorce.

Shaikh Abdul Aziz bin Al Al Shaikh went on to say that forced marriage was a pre-Islamic tradition which flouted the rules of Shariah law, and anyone who practiced it would face time behind bars until they changed their minds. Perpetrators will be jailed until they consign to "refrain from aggressing the woman, her legal tutor and the man she marries, and until the chief of their tribe or another influential member of the tribe guarantees that they will comply with this and refrain from aggression," Shaikh added.

The status and restrictions on Saudi women have longprovoked criticism. Women cannot drive a car, mix with menin public, leave home without covering themselves in a bigrobe from head to toe. A Saudi woman typically marrieswhomever her family chooses.

As part of a recent campaign of limited reform, theauthorities have taken steps toward giving women morerights and jobs. However, women are barred from running orvoting in this year's landmark municipal elections.