Riyadh: Saudi Arabia`s top cleric on Friday warned against the mixing of the genders, saying it poses a threat to female chastity and society, as the kingdom prepares for the first time to grant women seats on the country`s top advisory body.
Delivering his traditional Friday sermon, Grand Mufti Sheik Abdul-Aziz Al-Sheik said authorities must adhere to Shariah, or Islamic law, by ensuring men and women are separated as much as possible at all times.
The cleric`s comments come just weeks ahead of allowing women to be members of the 150-member Shura Council, the country`s top advisory body.
Since 2006, women have been appointed as advisors to the council an appointed, consultative body that has the authority to review laws and question ministers but cannot propose or veto legislation.
There are currently 12 female advisors, but they do not have a right to vote in the assembly.
The move by King Abdullah to allow women a voice on the Shura Council is part of a larger reform effort by the monarchy to give women greater space in the public sphere.
Last year, the kingdom began enforcing a law that allows women to work in female apparel and lingerie stores.
Religious leaders, including the grand mufti, have spoken out against such reforms.
The country is guided by an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam called Wahhabism. In the kingdom, women cannot travel, work, study abroad, marry, get divorced or gain admittance to a public hospital without permission from a male guardian typically a husband, brother, father or uncle.
While Al-Sheik has spoken out in support of granting women the right to vote in 2015 alongside men in the nation`s only open elections, he has criticized the decision to allow women to work in apparel stores, saying that it puts them in contact with men unrelated to them.
"It is necessary for women to be separated from men as much as possible, because this great religion protects the chastity of women against evil and corruption," Al-Sheik told worshippers at the Imam Turki mosque in Riyadh.