Senior Saudi cleric urges end to 'woman phobia'
Sheikh Adel al-Kalbani, the former imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, made the comments in a televised interview, Saudi newspaper Arab News reported on Monday.
Kalbani argued that Saudi women face stricter restrictions today that "isolate them from society" than they did during the time of the Prophet Muhammad.
"Sadly today, we are paranoid - in a mosque - a place of worship. [Women] are completely separated from men,"
"In the Prophet's era… the 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,"
The cleric also said that women should be addressed by their names as was the case during the early period of Islamic history.
The grandson of Saudi Arabia's former grand mufti has dismissed Kalbani's comments, arguing that the partition is necessary to ensure that women pray behind men.
"Honestly, a cow is more useful than Kalbani," Saleh ibn Baz was quoted as saying by local media.
Saudi Arabia has for decades imposed strict social rules, including bans on the mixing of unrelated men and women.
Kalbani is well-known for his liberal-leaning religious rulings, allowing music and card games for example.
The remarks come as Riyadh continues a drive to adopt a "moderate" state-sanctioned interpretation of Islam, with women recently being granted the right to drive.
Critics, however, say the reforms are meaningless as long as the male guardianship system persists.
The system severely restricts the ability of women to travel and conduct various routine tasks without the permission of their male relatives
They have also criticised the trial of several women rights activists charged with having links to foreign intelligence agencies.