Saudi press told to stop printing pictures of women

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Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has told the country's newspapers to stop publishing pictures of women as they could lead young men astray.

The move surprised some observers as the absolute monarch has sought to portray himself as a quiet reformer since taking the throne last year in the ultraconservative country.

All media in the kingdom are either owned by the state or run by it, but in recent months some Saudi newspapers have published pictures of women, always with the hair covered and only their face showing. The images of women wearing the traditional Muslim headscarf were used to illustrate stories connected to women's issues, including the right to vote and drive, both of which are withheld. The Saudi embassy in London declined to comment on the apparent ban.

The King reportedly told editors in a meeting this week that publishing a woman's picture was inappropriate. "One must think, do they want their daughter, their sister, or their wife to appear in this way? Of course, no one would accept this," the newspaper Okaz quoted King Abdullah as saying. "Young people are driven by emotion and the spirit, but the spirit can go astray. So I ask you to go easy on these things," the King reportedly said.

King Abdullah had been regarded by many Saudis as a quiet reformer who might begin to loosen the strict social codes. In recent months, however, many figures in the powerful religious establishment have used mosque sermons and websites to criticise any move towards liberalisation.

The authorities indefinitely postponed a move to replace male shop assistants with women at lingerie shops. The proposal, offered as evidence of progress on women's rights, has been quietly shelved amid claims that shopowners need more time to manage the transition.