Prominent Saudi cleric Sheikh Adil Al-Kalbani recently sparked controversy in the kingdom after criticizing rules that segregate men and women during prayers in mosques.
In a televised interview with the Saudi Broadcasting Corp. (SBC), the former Imam of the Holy Mosque in Meca explained that this kind of partition didn't exist during the era of Prophet Muhammad and has no root in Islamic tradition.
Al-Kalbani said in the Prophet's era, "men used to pray in the front and women prayed in the back of the mosque without a partition, not even a curtain. And today, it is a separated room, some even far from the original Prophet's Mosque area, I believe this is some type of phobia toward women."
He then added that the result of the segregation seen in mosques and elsewhere today is "paranoia."
"Sadly today, we are paranoid — in a mosque — a place of worship. They [women] are completely separated from men, they cannot see them and can only hear them through microphones or speakers. And if the voice has been cut off, they wouldn't know what is going on (during prayer)," he explained.
During his TV appearance, the cleric also spoke out on the issue some conservative men have when it comes to calling a woman by her name.
In Saudi Arabia, some families continue to conceal the names of their mothers, wives, and daughters in public circles. Their names are excluded from wedding invitations and even death announcements.
"Our daughters or sisters are no better than Aisha bint Abu Bakr (wife of the Prophet) — or the rest. All the Muslim women's names are known and their fathers' names are known. And they have given so much to society and the Ummah. It never harmed them that people knew their names," he explained.
Taking a clear stance in favor of improvements in the situation of women in Saudi Arabia, the cleric also praised the recent reforms that bettered their socio-economic standing in the country.
He also said he was pleased to hear of Saudi women being appointed in high-ranking government positions.
Al-Kalbani's statement left Saudis divided
"Mecca's holy mosque proves this is right. It's open for both men and women"
However, many stood against the cleric's point of view
"His words are right but is our world today the same as the Prophet's era? Are the good morals and decency that were there at that time still here now? Of course not."
"You want them to pray together? Fear God"
Some even called on Al-Kalbani to be suspended over his statement
"This is a man who shouldn't be an imam, he should also be stopped from issuing edicts because he isn't part of the official edict committee."
Saudi Arabia has long gender-segregated its public spaces
Gender segregation is still upheld in most public places in the kingdom, including in mosques/prayer areas, schools, universities, and most restaurants and malls.
Public spaces in the kingdom are usually split into two sections, one for single people and another for families.
In workplaces, women and men also have separate entrances and areas to work. However, it looks like the kingdom is slowly moving towards lifting its segregation rules and there have been developments when it comes to this matter.
These advancements come in line with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's ever-transforming Vision 2030, as he is pushing for positive change within the kingdom.
Under it, the country has been easing its gender segregation rules. In recent months, it was announced that multiplexes and theaters in the kingdom - following its ban lift on cinemas - will not be gender-segregated.
In another change, Riyadh held its first ever mixed-gender concert featuring a female singer in 2018. In February 2017, Jeddah also hosted the first-ever edition of the Saudi Comic Con (SCC) which was attended by both men and women.