Saudi decree allowing women to drive cars is about politics, not religion

By Haifaa Jawad | (The Conversation) | – –

In an unexpected move that surprised everyone, including his own people, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia has suddenly passed a royal decree permitting women to drive. His stunning decision comes after years of the ban, which was justified using Islam as a pretext.

The Council of Senior Religious Scholars, which is close to the royal family and is crucial for shoring up its legitimacy, seems to have strongly supported the move, stressing that the decision was in the interest of Saudi society – this despite the fact these same religious leaders have opposed women’s right to drive for decades, accusing any women who dare to take the wheel of having lost their virginity and integrity. Similarly, the official Saudi media portrayed the decree as a historic step – but presented it as a favour or a royal benevolence boosted upon women, not a legitimate right long overdue.

Despite the noise that accompanied the decree, this move is not some bold initiative to present a new religious interpretation of the issue. Theologically speaking, the ban has no basis in the Quran or Hadith, and should never have been imposed in the first place. Saudi Arabia was the only country in the region that banned women from driving cars, and its claims to religious and cultural legitimacy were baseless. The denial of this basic right was not only blatantly against the precepts of Islam, but has tainted the name of Islam in a country that flatters itself as the defender of the true faith.

So there are plenty of questions to answer. Why exactly was the decree finally issued – and why now? Is Saudi society ready to accept it? And what will be the social, political and religious implications at home and across the Middle East?

Out of nowhere?

It seems the decree was not previously discussed as a serious possibility, and there was no consultation or input from various sections of Saudi society. We also know that only a year ago, when the king’s son Muhammad Bin Salman was asked about the possibility of lifting the ban, he answered that Saudi society was not yet ready to accept such a transformation.

Some stated that the decision came as a natural consequence of the gradual reform policy adopted by the previous king, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz– who allowed women to take part in the recent municipal elections and have some form of representation for the first time in the history of the kingdom.

But others saw the decision as a ploy to assert political authority over the religious establishment that has dominated the kingdom’s politics for years. This is especially relevant given the aforementioned Muhammad bin Salman is predicted to imminently take over the kingdom from his frail, ill father.

In fact, a lot of Saudis believe that he is the prime mover behind the decision. He has already set out his plans for the kingdom under the brand Vision 2030, and is being presented as a king-in-waiting who will set the country on the road to modernity and civil liberty.

In a pinch

While the decree is a step in the right direction, many in the region and beyond believe that the decision is pure tokenism. Saudi women might now have the right to use a car, but they still don’t have full employment rights and cannot travel without permission from a male guardian. They cannot pass their Saudi nationality to their children if they aren’t married to a Saudi citizen, and still face the same restrictive code of female behaviour imposed on them by a patriarchal interpretation of the Islamic texts.

Ultimately, this is less an earnest emancipatory gesture than a useful political play, a distraction from the difficult situation into which the kingdom has lately fallen. Its reckless and erratic policies in Syria and Libya have isolated Saudi Arabia and called its credibility as regional hegemon into question – while its military coalition in Yemen faces mounting accusations of war crimes.

The Saudi government’s recent ostracisation of Qatar came with a heavy-handed crackdown on Saudi academics, human rights activists and moderate religious scholars (such as Salman al-Ouda, who not long ago advocated for ending the driving ban) who voiced opposition. The spectacle of critics being arrested and detained without compunction raised fears of a social and political backlash that could engulf both the kingdom and the region.

The ConversationThis is the real context for the decision to lift the ban. The question now is whether Saudi society, still very conservative and sensitive about women’s issues, will accept or reject the change. For now, the biggest losers are undoubtedly Saudi religious scholars – legitimacy will now be questioned by millions of Muslims in the kingdom and beyond.

Haifaa Jawad, Senior Lecturer in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Birmingham

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

Al-Arabiya English: “Here is how Saudi women can benefit more from driving in Saudi Arabia”

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2 Responses

  1. The authority of the ultraconservative Wahabi sect that has controlled public life in Saudi Arabia and engendered in its wake groups like al-qaeda and daesh (ISIS) is unlikely to survive for very long.

    With the advent of modern technology and modern education, ordinary Saudis are no longer cut off from the mainstream. They not only have a broad secular education but also access to all the teachings of both modern and ancient religious scholars (ulema). They know that some of the religious rules they are forced to follow are outside the bounds of orthodox Islam.

    Why should women be banned from driving a motor vehicle? We know from the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad that he spoke of Muslim women who rode hoses and camels and did not condemn them for doing so.

    In fact, he said that his own wife ‘Aisha (Allah be pleased with her) rode a camel but was too harsh in her treatment of it and so he told her “be gentle with it”.

    Indeed, the Prophet (pbuh) has given us guidance about radical Islamic sects:

    “Beware of extremism in religion because that was the only thing that destroyed those who came before you.”

  2. Driving rights for women is a sideshow. Let’s not lose sight of two critical issues. The Saudi royal family and the Saudi clerical establishment (1) are threatened by meaningful steps toward greater democratization in the region, and (2) are significant funders of a fundamentalist strain of Islam throughout the world. As a result, Saudi Arabia (inadvertently?) promotes Salafi jihadis. (Iran, in contrast, is comfortable with political developments that incorporate greater democratization; in fact, Iran is an important force fighting militant fundamentalists.) “[In 2016,] the former imam of [Saudi Arabia’s] Grand Mosque said…ISIS ‘exploited our own principles, that can be found in our books….We follow the same thought but apply it in a refined way.’”
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