Saudi women visit the Saudi Travel and Tourism Investment Market (STTIM) fair in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (Photo: AP)
Sheikh Abdel Latif Al-Sheikh, head of Saudi Arabia’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (PVPV), announced that both men and women will be allowed to attend next week's book fair in the capital Riyadh, Saudi Okaz newspaper reported Thursday.
Al-Sheikh also said that the PVPV, known as Haia, the Gulf kingdom’s religious police, will not confiscate any books on display at the fair.
"The role of the PVPV will only revolve around notifying the Ministry of Culture and media in case religious or moral [violations] take place at the fair," he said.
Understood as Saudi Arabia's second most powerful political body after the ruling Al-Saud family, the Haia police are feared in Saudi streets. Haia men may approach and arrest anyone they deem as breaking their rules, even if merely inciting "fitna," or temptation.
Al-Sheikh's announcement comes in line with steps taken by Riyadh to reduce strict limitations on women's rights in the country.
King Abdullah appointed 30 women in January to the previously all-male Shura Council, marking an unprecedented push for social reform in the ultra-conservative kingdom.
Women now have a 20 per cent quota in the council, a body appointed by the king to advise him on policy and legislation issues. King Abdullah took the decision following consultations with religious leaders.
However, men and women will be segregated inside the council, with a special area designated for females who will enter through a separate door so as not to mix with their male colleagues.
In September 2011, King Abdullah granted women the right to cast ballots and run as candidates in local elections, set for 2015.
Al-Sheikh decided in early 2013 that women will be permitted to work in shops shelling female accessories as long as they are subject to the rules of Islamic Sharia. Speaking to Saudi newspaper Al-Madina, Al-Sheikh explained that the PVPV will be authorised to restrict women from this type of work if they violate Sharia law.
Unemployment among women is exceptionally high in Saudi Arabia, surpassing the unemployment rate for men by almost 30 per cent.
A total of 1.7 million female citizens do not have jobs, despite the fact that almost half of these women hold university degrees, the Saudi labour ministry indicated in December 2012.