Saudi conservatives protest against Westernization

RIYADH Thu Apr 17, 2014 6:33am EDT

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RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabian conservatives have staged a rare protest outside the Royal Court in Riyadh against "Westernizing" reforms including moves to allow physical education for schoolgirls, local media reported on Thursday.

Photographs in the Saudi edition of pan-Arab daily al-Hayat showed dozens of men in traditional garb walking towards the court, the seat of government, and sitting on the grass outside as they demonstrated against social change.

Last week the consultative Shoura Council decided to urge the government to look into allowing sports classes for girls in state schools, something that many conservatives have long opposed. Most private schools for girls already offer physical education.

Some powerful clerics, conservatives and their supporters fear the kingdom is losing its Islamic values in favor of Western ideas.

In Saudi Arabia, women are banned from driving and must gain the approval of a male "guardian" to work, open a bank account, travel abroad or even to undergo some forms of voluntary surgery.

The newspaper quoted one of the men as saying they had come to the Royal Court to meet officials and discuss decisions that they regarded as a step towards Westernization, particularly the move towards allowing girls' sports classes.

The conservative kingdom, which practises sharia Islamic law, has made gradual reforms over the past decade aimed at giving women a bigger role in society and encouraging a more tolerant attitude towards other faiths.

But the al-Saud dynasty has always ruled in conjunction with powerful clerics of the kingdom's official Ahab school of Sunni Islam and treads carefully around questions of religious or social change for fear of provoking a conservative backlash.

Some clerics have complained about encouraging female employment, the appointment of 30 women to the Shoura Council which advises the government, reforms to the judiciary and moves to make education focus more on subjects other than religion.

All protests in Saudi Arabia are banned and on Wednesday a court sentenced an unidentified activist to six years in jail on charges including of taking part in illegal demonstrations and organizing women's protests, the state news agency reported.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Andrew Roche)

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