The government's policy to expand jobs for women has been challenged by Saudi Arabia's top clerics with a fatwa ruling that they should not work as cashiers in markets.
In the statement obtained by AFP the official fatwa issuing body said that "it is not permissible for a woman to work in a place where they mix with men."
"It is necessary to keep away from places where men congregate. Women should look for decent work that does not make it possible for them to attract men or be attracted by men," said the statement dated Sunday.
The ruling came from the Committee on Scholarly Work and Ifta, the official issuer of fatwas, or Islamic religious rulings, under the Council of Senior Scholars, the top authority for Islamic issues in the kingdom.
The fatwa was in response to a question -- published with the ruling -- asking specifically if women should work as cashiers in markets.
It mentioned several retailers by name: Saudi-owned Panda supermarkets, the supermarket chain Marhaba and the Los Angeles-based Red Tag Clothing chain.
Another retail clothing chain, UAE-controlled Centrepoint, has also begun trying female cashiers.
The ruling was signed by Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, the head of the Council of Senior Scholars, and six other members of the fatwa committee.
The fatwa came some four months after the labour ministry quietly authorised stores in the western city of Jeddah to employ women as cashiers, in an attempt to open up opportunities for women who are forcibly segregated from men under the strict Saudi version of Sunni Islam.
The first to test the policy was the Saudi-owned Panda chain, which started by putting 16 Saudi women to work at one store in the Red Sea city.
While there were grumbles from clerics, there were no concerted challenges, and Marhaba and Centrepoint both announced they would also try employing women at their checkout registers.
Panda set up separate checkout lines for families and women, but not for single men, in the way that Saudi restaurants are separated into sections for men and for women and families.
However, that apparently has not satisfied the conservative clerics -- even though shoppers themselves in supermarkets around the kingdom are not segregated.
The fatwa's impact was yet to be seen.
Panda and labour officials could not be reached for comment.
But in the Saudi context, in which court judges are all clerics and the law is Islamic sharia, it would be hard to challenge.
Moreover, King Abdullah in August decreed that only the highest-ranked clerics are permitted to issue fatwas -- placing more power in the hands of the Council of Senior Scholars.
The fatwa could be a substantial barrier to the labour ministry's mission to increase jobs for Saudi women.
According to figures reported in April, unemployment among Saudi women was 28.4 percent in 2009, up from 26.9 percent in 2008.
Thousands of women graduate from Saudi universities every year with few prospects for employment.
In Jeddah, which is relatively liberal compared to the rest of the country, the gender separation rules are more frequently ignored and offices have been permitted to mix male and female staff for over a year.
In Riyadh and elsewhere, the same happens surreptitiously in banks, law offices and other types of firms, though separation is still by far the rule.
In places like hospitals, where employees are predominantly foreigners and because they provide a crucial service, the religious hardliners look aside.
Still, women themselves are divided over the issue. One conservative women's group called in October for the creation of women-only hospitals.