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Saudi conservatives march against kingdom’s ‘Westernization’

Saudi businessmen attend the unveiling of the Saudi-made Meeya car, at a ceremony in the capital Riyadh, on April 16, 2014. (AFP PHOTO/FAYEZ NURELDINE)

RIYADH: Saudi Arabian conservatives have staged a rare protest outside the Royal Court in Riyadh against “Westernizing” reforms including moves to allow physical education for schoolgirls, local media reported Thursday.

Photographs in the Saudi edition of pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat showed dozens of men in traditional clothing walking toward the court – the seat of government – and sitting on the grass outside as they demonstrated against the proposed changes.

Last week, the consultative Shura Council urged the government to look into allowing sports classes for girls in state schools, something that many conservatives have long opposed. Most private girls’ schools already offer physical education.

Some powerful clerics, conservatives and their supporters fear the kingdom is losing its Islamic values to Western ideas.

In Saudi Arabia, women are banned from driving and must gain the approval of a male “guardian” to work, open a bank account, travel abroad or even to undergo some forms of surgery.

Al-Hayat quoted one of the men as saying they had come to the Royal Court to meet officials and discuss decisions that they regarded as a step toward Westernization, particularly the proposed sports classes.

The conservative kingdom, which practices Shariah, has made gradual reforms over the past decade aimed at giving women a bigger role in society and encouraging a more tolerant attitude toward other faiths.

But the al-Saud dynasty has always ruled in conjunction with powerful clerics of the kingdom’s official Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam, and treads carefully around questions of religious or social change for fear of provoking a conservative backlash.

Some clerics have complained about encouraging female employment, the appointment of 30 women to the Shura Council, reforms to the judiciary and moves to make education focus more on subjects other than religion.

All protests in Saudi Arabia are banned and a court Wednesday sentenced an unidentified activist to six years in jail on charges including taking part in illegal demonstrations and organizing women’s protests, the state news agency reported.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 18, 2014, on page 9.

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Summary

Saudi Arabian conservatives have staged a rare protest outside the Royal Court in Riyadh against "Westernizing" reforms including moves to allow physical education for schoolgirls, local media reported Thursday.

Last week, the consultative Shura Council urged the government to look into allowing sports classes for girls in state schools, something that many conservatives have long opposed.

Some clerics have complained about encouraging female employment, the appointment of 30 women to the Shura Council, reforms to the judiciary and moves to make education focus more on subjects other than religion.


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