Saudi Clerics Call Women's Rights Movement an Anti-Muslim Plot

Prominent Saudi clerics and academics warned Wednesday against calls for equality and increased rights for women, saying such efforts aim to make Muslim women more like "infidel" Western types.

Efforts to give women greater rights are part of an anti-Islamic campaign spearheaded by the United States, said 130 Saudi sheiks and academics in a statement obtained by The Associated Press Wednesday.

Women in Saudi Arabia (search) are segregated in public places, they cannot drive cars, and they must be covered from head to toe in public in this strict conservative society.

Islamic laws protect women and their rights, the statement said. It said efforts to change such traditions are "a vicious campaign from (the Muslim community's) enemy, led by the American government, to divert it from its faith."

U.S. criticism of Saudi Arabia's lack of democracy and support for militant Islam (search) in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States have forced the government to open up somewhat. Newspaper and magazine articles and television programs began to discuss reform, and even host women, something that used to be taboo here.

The statement said equality between men and women is not possible under Islam.

"Any calls for absolute equality is an illegal and illogical call," the statement said. It said allowing women to drive, a repeated request in the kingdom, would lead to "many evils."

The religious establishment is one of the most powerful voices in conservative Saudi Arabia, which ascribes to a puritan form of Islam known as Wahhabism (search).