Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has dismissed the conservative chief of the country's Virtue Commission, replacing him with a more liberal scholar who supports broadening women's rights.
The new chief, Sheik Abdulatif Al Sheikh (pictured), has publicly argued that Islamic law neither categorically required the absolute separation of men and women in public places, nor excludes women from working in public in Saudi society.
His appointment on Friday to head the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, is the latest in a series of recent social reforms by the king.
Some of these moves have provided benefits and greater freedoms for women, although women still do not have the right to drive and are subject to male guardianship.
Last September, King Abdullah granted women the right to vote in local elections and to serve as members of the country's top advisory board. Last week, a royal decree took effect banning men from selling women's goods, such as lingerie, opening such jobs to women. A similar decree concerning cosmetics shops is due to take effect in July.
Those changes affect more than 7,300 retail outlets and are expected to create job opportunities for more than 40,000 Saudi women, media reports quoted Labour Minister Adel Faqih as saying.
Thereafter, the Virtue Commission began obstructing women who have taken jobs in lingerie shops.
The dismissal of the previous chief, Sheik Abdulaziz al-Humain, came a week after a government deadline for the kingdom's more than 4,000 lingerie shops to replace male staff with women.
The new Virtue Commission Chief has initiated a major change in the organization's structure by announcing that volunteers will no longer be allowed to serve on the force, in an apparent effort to reduce misconduct from Commission representatives.
"From now on there will be no more volunteers," he was quoted as saying.
"Amongst my priorities in the coming period is to create strong ties between the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice and all social categories," he added.
The new Virtue Commission chief was formerly senior member of the Council of Senior Scholars, one of the two highest religious authorities in the kingdom. In his former capacity, he opposed child marriage and other traditional practices.
Members of the Al Al Shaikh family, who are direct descendents of the reformer Mohammad Bin Abd Al Wahhab, hold the roles of Grand Mufti, head of the advisory Shura Council and Islamic Affairs Minister.
"New chief of S.Arabia morality police a boost for women's rights" Trust Law January 16, 2012
"No more volunteers in Saudi religious police" Khaleej Times January 16, 2012
"Saudi king names new chief of virtue body" Oman Daily Observer January 14, 2012
Reproduced with permission from Islam Today