The reasons behind stopping women from driving in Saudi Arabia no longer exists, a prominent Saudi cleric told Al Arabiya, bringing the issue of whether Saudi women should be allowed to drive to the surface once more.
The comments were made during the TV show Wajih al-Sahafah (Face the Press), aired by Al Arabiya few days ago, and presented by prominent journalist Dawood al-Shirian.
Sheikh Ahmed bin Baz, said that a fatwa on the matter, issued by the Council of Senior Islamic Scholars, was given in a particular context in the early 1990s, a time when there was much upheaval in the region, including the Gulf War, Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait and the arrival of U.S. forces, something that some conservatives described as an American invasion.
Bin Baz is an Islamic affairs researcher and lecturer and the son of the Kingdom’s late former grand mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Baz.
He added that it was at this time that the actions of a small group of women who got into cars and drove around was rejected by these conservatives who viewed their actions as intimidating and a move away from the Islamic status quo, reported the Saudi English-language daily Arab News in its analysis of the show.
Sheikh bin Baz added that the issue of women driving should not be viewed through a fatwa but as a general “right.”
“Nowadays, stances and views have changed regarding everything and this is not an alien thing. Blocking pretexts is not necessary as not everything can lead to vices,” said Sheikh bin Baz, asking whether driving and the use of cars should also be banned if traffic accidents lead to the loss of life.
The son of the Kingdom’s former grand mufti said forbidding women from driving fearing they may be sexually harassed indicates that “we do not trust out education system, which teaches a sense of right and wrong that is derived from Islamic teaching. If we are in doubt about it, then we should re-evaluate it.”
On the other hand, Nasser al-Oud, a professor of social services, looks at women driving as a cultural issue that needs to be studied from various angles. He added that there are no studies, surveys or research to elucidate the impact of foreign drivers on society.
740,000 drivers in KSA
There are over 740,000 drivers in the Kingdom, said al-Oud, adding that this is harmful to the economy as drivers send remittances abroad, harmful to families as drivers sometimes interfere in family matters, harmful to society as drivers are sometimes involved in crime and harmful to laborers as drivers are often involved in human trafficking.
Al-Oud said Saudi society rejects novel changes, which he said also includes women driving, something that makes men feel relegated from a dominant position in society. “But the thing is, it is not the men of the house who are the actual ones driving and fulfilling their families’ needs. It is the foreign drivers,” he said.
Mohammed al-Zulfa, a former member of the Shura Council, refuses seeing women as fragile and in need of protection. “Women are much stronger than we imagine. There are many widows and divorcees who provide for their entire families,” he said, adding that people should have faith in them and they should be trusted.
He added that issues involving women are sensitive and are often dealt with in a conservative fashion. “The Shura usually puts an issue up for discussion should there be a recommendation to do so. Yet the issue of driving has not even been presented for discussion, as there is a fatwa on the matter issued by the Council of Senior Islamic Scholars in 1990-1991.
We need a fatwa to annul the previous one or a royal decree,” he said.
Al-Zulfa said religious institutes tolerate women mixing or being in "khalwa" (privacy) with their drivers but stop short of allowing women to drive. “It is a cultural and social issue rather than a religious one,” he said, adding that it is a political decision and should be dealt with by the government.
What al-Zulfa says about the issue being a social and cultural matter, rather than a religious one, is something that bin Baz agrees on. “There are rights the government should give like education, health care and the ability to move and use transportation freely,” he said.