Gender segregation is common in Saudi Arabia
In a statement in which he does not mince his words, the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia has warned of dire consequences if women are allowed to remove the veil in public and mix with men.
Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, who is the highest religious authority in the kingdom, condemned a recent economic conference in Jeddah at which women appeared unveiled and talked to male delegates.
The mufti's statement will be seen by Saudi liberals as an attempt by the religious establishment to put the brakes on a momentum for change in the kingdom which has been building up over the past year.
Sheikh al-Sheikh said Sharia condemned unveiled women in no uncertain terms and that the mixing of men and women was the root of all evil.
Significantly, he reminded Saudi rulers that the founding father of the conservative kingdom was himself an adamant opponent to women removing the veil or mixing with men, except close relatives.
Sheikh al-Sheikh was equally enraged by the press coverage of the conference, which showed pictures of unveiled women.
The mufti quoted a famous saying by the Prophet Muhammad, which is widely cited by militant Islamist groups to justify violence against ungodly societies.
Demands for change
He then urged all Muslims to change what he described as immoral behaviour.
Men and women at the Jeddah economic conference were segregated by a screen, but women were able to cross over into the men's section.
Some of them gave speeches and the event was hailed by some Saudi newspapers as the beginning of the liberation of Saudi women.
The Saudi royal family will once again find itself in a difficult position.
On the one hand, it has to be seen as the guardian of the founding principle of the kingdom - Sharia.
On the other hand, it can no longer ignore internal as well as external pressure for change.