DUBAI, May 3, 2010 -- The photo may not look remarkable - a Saudi royal posing with roughly 40 women covered in conservative Muslim dress. But the photograph of King Abdullah is being hailed as a landmark for Saudi women and their long struggle for equal rights.
"I think this is a great picture…everyone is talking about it," said Dr. Maha Muneef, a prominent physician and advisor to the governmental Shura council in Riyadh.
"This is a picture that sent a message to the people that it is OK to work with women and be side by side with women, and there's nothing wrong with that."'
Separation of the sexes is at the heart of Saudi Arabia's conservative social ground rules. Men and women are schooled separately, walk through different doors into most buildings, and sit in gender segregated sections of restaurants and cafes.
Since King Abdullah came to power in 2005 the rules on gender segregation have relaxed, in slow but significant ways. The king has included Saudi women in his official delegations when traveling abroad. More women work now in the private sector, where separate offices for men and women are no longer legally required. Last year the new King Abdullah University for Science and Technology gave women the unprecedented chance to study in a co-ed environment, on Saudi soil.
As King Abdullah's government has pushed through reform, the conservative clerical establishment has begun to rethink and publicly debate its strict policies on women's rights, a discussion that would have been unthinkable in the past.
In late 2009 Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi, a prominent cleric at the helm of Saudi's religious police, told an Arabic newspaper that nothing in Islam prohibits "ikhtilat," or the mixing of sexes. Hard-line conservatives slammed Al-Ghamdi and removed him from his post. Al-Ghamdi told Arab News he subsequently received death threats and accusations of being an infidel and an atheist.
"There was always a debate between the religious people and the liberals in society. But now it's a dialogue among the religious people and the conservatives themselves. That's a big difference now," said Al Muneef.
Saudi King's Bold Statement on Women
Al-Ghamdi was soon reinstated in what was believed to be a direct intervention by the regional governor. But the melee has continued for months, elevating the picture of King Abdullah surrounded by women to a major statement on where the kingdom is heading.
"The whole point of his taking photos with women is to get people comfortable with the idea of men and women mixing," said Dr. Basmah Al Omair, CEO of the Khadijah Bint Khouwailid Center for Businesswomen in Jeddah. The center is named after the Prophet Mohammed's first wife, who was a working single mother, and lobbies for greater legal rights for women.
Khaled Al Maeena, editor-in-chief of the daily Arab News, says the king's picture strengthens moderates and civil society actors as they argue for change.
"This could be a major statement by the king to allay fears that this reform is a temporary phase," he said. Supporters of King Abdullah had long worried that at 85-years-old, he would not be able to build a strong enough base of reforms to outlast his reign.
Al Maeena sees the debate over gender segregation as the start of a long and heated discourse, in which his liberal camp now carries a stronger hand.
"This will continue and they will persist. But it's up to us to call a spade a spade."