In a country where women are not allowed to drive, let alone vote, Saudi Arabia's top religious leader took one small step toward gender equality last week when he banned the practice of forcing women to marry against their will. Calling such coercion "un-Islamic" and "a major injustice," the kingdom's Grand Mufti, Sheik Abdul Aziz al-Asheik, proclaimed that fathers and male guardians who try to force their daughters into wedlock should be thrown in jail until the men change their minds. He made it clear that forced marriages originated as a pre-Islamic custom and are antithetical to Shari'a law, which stipulates that a woman must consent to a marriage or else it is not considered valid.
In the intensely patriarchal Saudi society, in which a woman made headlines last week for suing her father (for refusing to take her back into his house after she divorced her husband), it's not certain that even the Grand Mufti is powerful enough to change the status quo. But the Saudi monarchy is strongly, if quietly, supporting his action. A source close to Crown Prince Abdullah says that the de facto Saudi ruler sees the move as part of his effort to institute political and cultural reforms, and that allowing women to drive might be next on the agenda.
The ban is another sign that the push for democracy in the Middle East may finally be reaching women. Hundreds of Kuwaiti protesters last month demanded that women be given the right to vote. Women's suffrage will be granted in Qatar when its new constitution takes effect in June. Women in Iraq are demanding a greater voice in the newly formed government there. And the Saudi government has even raised the possibility of granting women the right to vote in the next elections. Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the University of Maryland at College Park, thinks the Grand Mufti's statement on marriage could augur a trend. "If you start mobilizing the quiet majority by putting this on the agenda," he says, "society starts to change." --By Julie Rawe. Reported by Nadia Mustafa, Scott MacLeod and Amany Radwan