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Women may be barred at holy site

Published September 8, 2006

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia - Officials are considering a proposal to ban women from performing the five Muslim prayers in the immediate vicinity of Islam's most sacred shrine in Mecca. Some say women are already being kept away.

The issue has raised a storm of protest across the kingdom, with some women saying they fear the move is meant to restrict women's roles in Saudi society even further. But the religious authorities behind the proposal insist its real purpose is to lessen the chronic problem of overcrowding, which has led to deadly riots during pilgrimages at Mecca.

It was unclear why the step was being considered now, but officials say they have growing concerns about overcrowding, particularly at Mecca's Grand Mosque. The mosque contains the Kaaba, a large stone structure that Muslims around the world face during their daily prayers.

The chief of the King Fahd Institute for Hajj Research, which came up with the plan, told the Associated Press on Thursday that the new restrictions are already in place. There have been word-of-mouth reports of women being asked to pray at new locations away from the white-marbled area surrounding the Kaaba in recent weeks.

But Sheik Youssef Khzeim, deputy chief of the Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques Affairs, a Saudi government organization in charge of implementing the proposal, said the old arrangements that allow women to pray in the Kaaba's vicinity are still in effect. He said if any woman was asked to move to the back "it's only to maintain order."

"This is still a study and nothing has been implemented," Khzeim told the AP.

Such discrepancies are not unusual in Saudi Arabia and could signal an attempt to introduce the controversial arrangements slowly.

Many Saudis say the proposal, released two weeks ago in the form of a study, violates the spirit of Islam.

"The prophet, who is the first leader of Muslims, didn't do it," said Mohsen al-Awajy, an Islamist lawyer and cleric. "Those who are proposing the change after him have to come up with legal justification for it."

Al-Awajy urged the Saudi government to put an end to "such a rigid and austere mind-set that could become the core of a violent trend in the future."

Prominent Saudi female writers have written angry editorials denouncing the plan as discriminatory and urging authorities not to adopt it. Some have questioned the reason for changing a tradition that goes back to the dawn of Islam. Others say it further sets back women in the country.

Women in Saudi Arabia lead strict lives. They are banned from driving and need permission from a male guardian to go to school, get a job, travel or stay at a hotel.

Muslims believe the original Kaaba was built by Adam and that it was rebuilt by the prophet Abraham, who initiated the call for people to make a pilgrimage to Mecca.

[Last modified September 8, 2006, 02:20:12]

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