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The King and her

While the Church of England moves into the final stages of opening the episcopacy to women, it seems that Saudi Arabia is also taking steps on the long road towards freedom for women. One sign of this is that in April King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan had their picture taken with 40 women.

This may sound rather like sexual equality Jim Davidson-style, but the King was breaking with the Saudi tradition of rigidly separating the sexes. Many houses have separate entrances for men and women, while restaraunts, libraries, banks and buses are segregated.

The picture, taken at the National Dialogue Forum and published on the front page of most newspapers, has sparked considerable comment. Arab News saw it as 'a symbolic message to the nation that the time has come for women to be recognised'.

Manal Faisal Alsharief, editor of  the women's section of the Okaz newspaper, said, 'Slowly and surely, their contributions are being recognised'.

King Abdullah's move comes after he opened the country's first co-educational institution in September, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. This provoked great controversy, including two televised debates.

It seems that a senior cleric, Sheikh Saad Bin Nasser A-Shithri, was fired for opposing the mixing of the sexes and a senior police officer, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Ghamdi, for supporting it.   

Sheikh Abdul-Rahman Al-Barrak issued a fatwa declaring 'Whoever allows this mixing ... allows forbidden things... Either he retracts or he must be killed.' But then  a leading supporter of the fatwa is said to have attended the King's mixed forum and talked to women for some hours.

Against this background, there is more to that photo than might have met the eye.