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Saudi Arabia: Shura Council Denies Social Media Reports on Resolution to Allow Women to Drive

(June 7, 2017) The official spokesman of Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council has denied social media reports that went viral at the end of March claiming that the Council was forwarding a resolution to the Council of Ministers seeking approval for the country’s women to drive. (Tariq A. Al-Maeena, Getting Behind the Wheel in Saudi Arabia, GULF NEWS (Apr. 1, 2017).)  The Shura Council is the king’s advisory body with the power to propose laws to the Council of Ministers (Cabinet).  (Saudi “Shura Council” Debates Granting Women Driving Licenses, NEW ARAB (May 9, 2017).)  Expressing dismay over the many celebratory tweets sent by Saudi women who had taken the report to be genuine, Council spokesman Dr. Mohammad Al-Muhanna stated, “Shura Council president Dr Shaikh Abdullah Bin Mohammad Bin Ebrahim Al-Shaikh did not make any press statements in this regard.”  (Id.)

Despite the Shura Council spokesman’s denial of the reports, the head of the Council’s committee on economy and energy, Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, said the issue had been discussed by the Council and he had urged Council members not to remain silent about it. (Growing Support for Women Drivers in Saudi, ARABIAN BUSINESS (Apr. 17, 2017).)  Al-Rashed stated there was no Saudi traffic law preventing women from driving and “if there is a clear regulation that allows women to drive, then I am with it, especially as there is no Sharia restriction on the issue.”  (Id.)  News reports several weeks after Al-Rashed’s statement indicated the Shura Council had been expected to debate the issue on May 8, but the discussion was postponed 48 hours before the start of the session.  The postponement was made to enable members “to come up with a solid recommendation to enable women to drive” that would be included in an Interior Ministry report on the issue.  No new date has been set for the debate.  (Fatima Al-Dibais, Shoura Intent on Enabling Women to Drive, SAUDI GAZETTE (May 10, 2017).)

Religious Basis of the Ban on Saudi Women Driving

Saudi Arabia has no specific law prohibiting women from driving, but the country’s Islamic establishment enforces a ban. (Why Can’t Women Drive in Saudi Arabia?, BBC Newsround (Oct. 27, 2013).)  The roots of the ban lie in the kingdom’s insistence on segregation of the sexes and the veiling of women, in accordance with the customs of Wahhabi Islam (Olga Khazan, “Negative Physiological Impacts”? Why Saudi Women Aren’t Allowed to Drive, ATLANTIC (Oct. 7, 2013)) and several hadith (traditions) of the Prophet Muhammad.  Two of these traditions state that “[a] woman should not travel except with a Mahram (her husband or unmarriageable male relative)” and “[n]o man should be alone with a woman unless she has a Mahram present with her, and no woman should travel except with a Mahram.”  (Quoted in Fatwas of the Permanent Committee: Fatwa No. 17280, KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA, PORTAL OF THE GENERAL PRESIDENCY OF SCHOLARLY RESEARCH AND IFTA’ (last visited June 5, 2017).)

Saudi women’s demands for social reforms in 1990, including the right to drive, elicited a crackdown by the religious police (Khazan, supra) and a fatwa (religious decree) against women driving issued by the Council of Senior Islamic Scholars (Women Driving Issue Needs No Fatwa: Saudi Cleric, AL-ARABIYA (last updated Oct. 17, 2010)).  The fatwa stated that women driving “entails unlawful Khulwah (being alone with a member of the opposite sex), unveiling the face, careless and free intermixing (of men and women), and committing adultery which is the main reason for the prohibition of these practices. … Allowing women to drive contributes to the downfall of the society.”  (‘Abdul-‘Aziz ibn Baz, Fatwas of Ibn Baz, KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA, PORTAL OF THE GENERAL PRESIDENCY OF SCHOLARLY RESEARCH AND IFTA’ (last visited June 5, 2017).)

According to Indiana University professor Jaime Kucinskas, “[t]he [Saudi] ideal of feminine piety is associated with home, the need for protection and subsequent seclusion. Driving symbolizes the opposite: freedom in the public sphere.”  He also notes that “[t]he public separation of men and women is a particular element of Saudi national identity and is seen by Saudis as a trademark of why their particular society is superior to both Western countries and other predominantly Muslim nations.”  (Khazan, supra.)  It has also been argued that driving could lead to exposure to situations where women’s safety or modesty would be compromised, as in the case of a car accident with a male stranger.  (Christa Case Bryant, Many Saudis Don’t Want Women to Drive – but It Has Nothing to Do with Their Ovaries, CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR (Sept. 30, 2013).)

Opposing Clerical Views

The views of conservative clerics that women driving “is derived from Western thinking and culture [and] … deemed to be against Islamic law” are not universally shared among Saudi clerics, however. (Saudi Scholars Disagree on Women Driving, YEMEN PRESS (Mar. 22, 2017).)  Senior Saudi Islamic scholar and popular preacher Sheikh Aaidh al-Qarni has written that “preventing a woman from driving a car has no religious arguments and [the] Shoura Council must review the issue.”  (Id.)

Prominent cleric and Islamic affairs researcher Sheikh Ahmed bin Baz, who is the son of the grand mufti who wrote the fatwa against women driving, believes that the fatwa was the reaction of conservatives intimidated by the small group of women who drove around in cars in defiance of convention and “the Islamic status quo” during a time of great upheaval, as well as a reaction to the arrival of U.S. forces in the Gulf region. (Women Driving Issue Needs No Fatwa: Saudi Cleric, supra.)  Bin Baz feels that “the issue of women driving should not be viewed through a fatwa but as a general ‘right’” and that “[n]owadays, stances and views have changed … and [women driving] is not an alien thing.  Blocking pretexts is not necessary as not everything can lead to vices.”  (Id.)

Other Opposing Opinions

Many Saudis view women driving as a cultural and social issue, rather than a religious one. Former Shura Council member Mohammed al-Zulfa, citing the many widows and divorcees who provide for their entire families as an example, maintains that “[w]omen are much stronger than we imagine. … People should have faith in them and they should be trusted.”  (Id.)  Noting that “religious institutes tolerate women mixing or being in ‘khalwa’ (privacy) with their [usually foreign] drivers but stop short of allowing women to drive,” al-Zulfa calls for a fatwa to annul the previous one or for a royal decree, saying that the issue requires a political decision by the government.  (Id.)  Social Services professor Nasser al-Oud points out that while many Saudi men regard such novel changes as women driving as threatening their dominant position in society, “it is not the men of the house who are the actual ones driving and fulfilling their families’ needs.  It is the foreign drivers.”  (Id.)

Outspoken Royal family member and longtime Saudi women’s rights advocate Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, echoing those who dismiss religious opposition to women driving, has stated that “preventing a woman from driving a car is today an issue of rights similar to the one that forbade her from receiving an education or having an independent identity.  They are all unjust acts by a traditional society, far more restrictive than what is lawfully allowed by the precepts of religion.”  (Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud, It’s High Time That Saudi Woman [sic] Started Driving Their Cars (Nov. 24, 2016), Prince Alwaleed website.)

Saudi women’s rights activist Hala Al-Dosari, for her part, sees the country’s male guardianship system as state-sanctioned discrimination that “[i]n practice … means women are unrecognised by the state as full legal adults.” (Hala Al-Dosari, Saudi Male-Guardianship Laws Treat Women as Second-Class Citizens, GUARDIAN (Oct. 7, 2016).)

Likelihood of Reform

Despite the increasing calls for change to the kingdom’s driving policy, however, women may not be getting behind the wheel anytime soon. The powerful Saudi Deputy Crown Prince, Mohammad Bin Salman, claims that the change cannot be forced or decreed by the government – it will be Saudi “society” that determines when women can drive, and “[s]o far, the society is not persuaded” (Saudi Prince Calls for End to Country’s “Unjust” Ban on Women Driving, GUARDIAN (Nov. 30, 2016)) and “still thinks allowing women to drive will have negative consequences” (Jess Staufenberg, Saudi Arabia Is “Not Ready” for Women Drivers, Says Deputy Crown Prince, INDEPENDENT (UK) (Apr. 28, 2016)).