Suddenly Legal: How Saudi Women Driving Stopped Being Haram Overnight

Published September 27th, 2017 - 01:20 GMT
A Saudi woman walks near car down a street in the Saudi capital Riyadh on September 27, 2017 (FAYEZ Nureldine/AFP)
A Saudi woman walks near car down a street in the Saudi capital Riyadh on September 27, 2017 (FAYEZ Nureldine/AFP)
  • Saudi women will be allowed to get driving licenses for the first time
  • They had been banned from driving due to the influence of religious conservatives, who labeled it "haram"
  • Saudi Arabia's senior religious body suddenly declared women's driving to be permissable in Islam
  • A recent crackdown on dissent has targeted religious scholars


Late last night, the news broke that women in Saudi Arabia would be granted driving licenses for the first time.

Women had previously been banned from driving on the basis that “most religious authorities say that women driving is “haram” - forbidden”, according to a 2012 article.

The BBC’s Frank Gardner wrote on Wednesday that “religious conservatives have expressed views varying from ‘they are too stupid to drive’ to ‘it will lead to intolerable mingling of the sexes’”

Only days ago, Saad al-Hijri, the head of the religious edicts department in Asir province, had proclaimed that women could not drive, as they have only a quarter of a man’s brain.

Al-Hijri was suspended for the comments in what was perhaps a hint at the upcoming national ruling.

Nonetheless, on Wednesday Al-Arabiya reported that “the majority of the members of the senior scholars' council saw no impediment to women driving.”

In fact, the Senior Council of Scholars, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body which advises the king on religious matters, soon issued this statement on “the Sharia (Islamic law) basis for allowing women to drive”.

Shortly beforehand, it had also tweeted praise for King Salman, saying:

“May Allah preserve the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques who strives for the benefit of his country and his people in light of what is decided by Islamic law.”

The tweet was picked up by Iraqi journalist Steven Nabil and shared to his nearly million Facebook followers, with the caption “The Sultans' Preachers”.

He was referring to a work by Iraqi social scientist Ali al-Wardi, about how religious scholars have backed up political regimes.

The implication was clear:

One Qatari on Twitter also picked up on the change of tone:

The senior scholars: driving is haram for women.

King: Signs to give women driving licenses.

Senior scholars: May Allah preserve the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques

A similar sentiment was expressed among commenters across social media. One Twitter user wrote: "As far as I remember, Sharia scholars have said it was haram (forbidden) for women to drive. How come it has suddenly become halal (permissible)?"

In fact, a remarkable number of Saudi clerics seem to have no issue with the King’s ruling.

Prominent Islamic cleric Ayed al-Qarnee diplomatically tweeted to his 17.3 million followers:

“#Permission_for_women_to_drive applies according to need and is not compulsory. These sorts of issues go back to the decision makers and the senior scholars.”

Dr Saeed bin Misfer of Mecca’s College of the Holy Mosque tweeted the following:

A modest woman will remain decent whether she drives the car or walks on her feet. This decision will only increase society's maturity, cohesion and sense of responsibility

Other religious figures have stayed quiet on the matter so far, apparently including the religious conservatives whose opposition to women’s driving had seen the ban remain in place so long.



So, why the sudden about turn in prevailing Islamic opinion?

You don’t have to look very far to understand why clerics would toe the line. The decision comes at a time when prominent clerics are being arrested for dissent.

Among those reported detained earlier this month were Salman al-Awdah, Awad al-Qarni and Ali al-Omary. These three scholars had gained online followings despite being outside the clerical establishment.

Al-Awdah had recently tweeted his support for reports of reconciliation efforts between Saudi and Qatari authorities.

The irony is that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had previously indicated that: "Women driving is not a religious issue as much as it is an issue that relates to the community itself that either accepts it or refuses it."

Perhaps that is true, but it is also the case that how the Saudi royals influence religious rulings has a considerable effect on whether Saudi society accepts or refuses a law.

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