SHAFAQNA – A prominent cleric has caused uproar in Saudi Arabia by bringing his wife on national television with her face uncovered, in an open challenge to conservative traditions of dress. Sheikh Ahmad al-Ghamedi has been receiving death threats since his wife, Jawaher, accompanied him on a popular chat show earlier this week, delighting reformists and scandalising conservatives.
One hardline cleric has called for the sheikh — once a former head of the religious police in Mecca and now a leading liberal voice — to be tortured as punishment. But many Saudis have flocked to the couple’s defence as the controversy brings the simmering debate on women’s rights in the kingdom back to the boil. Wearing light make-up and painted nails with her traditional black abaya dress, Jawaher sat composed beside her husband as he explained his view that Muslim women should dress modestly but need not wear the niqab, or face veil.
“The Prophet did not order women to cover their faces. Wearing make-up is allowed,” he told Badria al-Bishr, the show’s female host, who also does not wear the veil.
Jawaher herself said she supported her husband, though she admitted their children had problems at school. “Our children complain that some teachers tell them, ‘Why does your father say this and that?’ ” she said.
Hardliners condemned sheikh al-Ghamedi on Twitter as a “filthy pimp” and a “cuckold” for allowing strangers to see his wife’s face. Others threatened to kill him. Even Saudi Arabia’s most senior cleric weighed in. The Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, urged sheikh al-Ghamedi to withdraw his remarks and repent.
“Some of our Muslim brothers embarrass their wives in front of the public,” he said. “This act reflects stubbornness on their part. It’s a dangerous thing.” Sheikh al-Ghamedi has long been a controversial figure in Saudi Arabia. Rising through the ranks of the feared religious police, the committee for the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice, the cleric toed the ultra-conservative party line.
Upon taking control of the commission in Mecca, however, he began to espouse ideas deemed unsuitable for the force.
In 2008, he issued a fatwa permitting unmarried men and women to mix, something the religious police is tasked with stamping out. The edict provoked outrage and the sheikh was forced into early retirement. He has continued to preach, however.
Eman al-Nafjan, a women’s rights activist in Riyadh, said: “This really shows how the religious establishment has broken into pieces. The people attacking al-Ghamedi are the ones who want to drag us back to the Middle Ages.”