Middle East

Saudi preachers denounce push for co-ed schooling

DUBAI: Conservative Muslim preachers have pounced on Saudi Arabia’s Education Ministry to nip in the bud any possible move to modify the strict separation of boys and girls in primary school.

The preachers reacted sharply after Education Minister Prince Faisal bin Abdullah al-Saud visited an all-girls school two weeks ago while his female deputy went to an all-boys school.

Children attend primary school together in many Muslim countries, but in Saudi Arabia they have long been separated.

“The statements coming from the Ministry of Education on promoting the mixing of genders at schools or in other areas hurt our ears and are rejected by people with sense,” Mohammad bin Safar al-Asmari, a preacher from the south of the country, said in a video message this week.

In the message, Asmari and other clerics also rejected recent challenges by women against the status quo, for example against bans on women voting and driving.

“There are those who are trying to drag this nation down into humiliation by pointing to the women issue. They act as if women in this country … live in a state of oppression,” said another. “On the contrary, [they] live in honor.”

Earlier this week, female Saudi activist Manal al-Sharif was arrested for driving after posting a video of herself at the wheel of a car on YouTube and drawing the attention of rights groups around the world.

She will be held in detention for at least 10 more days, a lawyer and rights activist said Thursday.

“Mothers can’t drive cars, so they can’t even take their kids to school,” the lawyer added.

Popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that toppled leaders in those countries has emboldened those seeking change in the kingdom but also heightened vigilance by powerful sheikhs and conservatives interested in maintaining the status quo.

“I ask [our leaders] to beware of these people who are trying to erode our nation’s security and bring destruction upon us through their statements and ideas,” said Asmari.

King Abdullah was considered a reformer when he inherited the throne in 2005 and has tried to introduce reforms with some success, such as the opening of the first mixed-gender university near Jeddah in 2009.

In order to ease social tensions, Abdullah also unveiled $130 billion in job-creating measures in March after small, sporadic protests erupted in the country’s Eastern Province.

Social pressures in the kingdom have been rising steadily over the last decade, owing to a young and growing population, unemployment, lack of housing and an increasing demand for freedoms.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 27, 2011, on page 8.

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