Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The debate on women and driving continues in Saudi Arabia | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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AFP photo

AFP photo

AFP photo

Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat-Over a hundred prominent Saudi figures, all men, issued a statement, earlier this week, opposing the right of women to drive in the Kingdom. The signatories include Sheikh Abdullah Ibn Jebreen, Sheikh Abdul-Aziz bin Abdullah Al-Rajhi, 15 academics at the Mohammad bin Saud University in Riyadh and al Ahsa, in addition to seven men from scientific and religious institutes affiliated with the university, nine judges, a legal consultant with the Ministry of Justice, and government employees from other departments.

Out of the 118 men who signed the petition, 33 held a Doctorate degree with the title “His Excellency Sheikh” preceding their names. Many signatories are brothers, cousins, relatives, and friends.

A well-known religious website published the petition and the names of the signatories, devoting an entire page to comments from the public. So far, 438 individuals backed the statement, 2059 viewed the names of the signatories, yet only 752 have read it. 2700 viewed the webpage inviting guests to add their signatures and 2822 checked the headline on the main page.

“The Statement of Religious Scholars and Students on Women and Driving” discussed the position of women in Islam but refrained from discussing the contemporary status of women and its proximity to the ideal picture. It considered every attack on women in Saudi Arabia to be an attack by the enemies of Islam and non-practising Muslims, in reference to conspiracy theories that have been popular in the Arab and Islamic Worlds in recent years.

The statement said that any Saudi citizen, male or female, who supports the right of women to drive, is a deviant who seeks to liberate women. This is why, the signatories said, they had decided to publish the petition and distributed it in the media.

Quoting Ibn Al Qayyim and Ibn Othaymin on the corruption of mankind and the state of Muslim women, the signatories maintained that it is unacceptable for women to drive because such an act will cause corruption and immorality. Consequently, women would be able to move freely and leave their homes, exposing themselves and making excuses to remove their veils citing security as a reason, as has already happened in neighboring countries. Yet, around the Persian Gulf , women drive wearing the niqab (a face veil covering the lower part of the face (up to the eyes) worn by observant Muslim women) without a problem.

Another argument mentioned in the petition is women driving would necessitate photographing them and identifying them, although Saudi Arabia already requires all its citizens to have identity cards and passports. Furthermore, according to the signatories, driving corrupts women and undermines men’s authority, increasing the risk of harassment, molestation, kidnap, and rape. Women driving would create more traffic jams and accidents on the Kingdom’s roads because females are, naturally, softer than men, have worse eyesight, and are less capable. In addition, women’s love of elegance and showing off would entail a rise in expenditure.

The statement said the risks of women taking to the roads would outweigh the benefits. Relying on chauffeurs might harm the economy but it easily dwarfs the consequences of women driving. This is because, the signatories wrote, every household would have to own more than one car, since women love new things and are likely to be involved in traffic accidents because they are fragile and panic in demanding situations. The authorities would then have to establish new departments to supervise women drivers and the high costs would place a burden on the government budget and the roads which are not yet ready for an increase in traffic. The signatories cited a number of economic and political arguments against women driving although neither subject is their field of specialty.

Instead of allowing women behind the wheel, the signatories suggested the government set up special transportation projects for women. In addition they recommended only honest Muslim drivers should be recruited, but did say how this can be guaranteed.

The statement referred to a previous declaration by the Permanent Committee for Religious Edicts headed by Sheikh Abdel Aziz bin Baz in 1999 that warned against demands for women to drive due to a likely rise in immorality. It also mentioned another ruling by Sheikh Mohammed Ibn Othaymin cautioning against women driving.

According to the signatories, no religious scholar or preacher or even reform from across the Kingdom had called for permitting women to drive. Instead, supporters of the idea have encouraged the westernization and corruption of women, as part of a conspiracy to achieve their goals. The statement asked all those who support women driving to repent their sin, asking the authorities to act against those infidels to avoid conflict in society, especially as the region has witnessed enough wars already.

A number of reform minded Saudi men and women had earlier presented a petition to the Saudi National Human Rights Organization demanding women be allowed to drive.

Legal consultant and former judge, Abdel Aziz al Qassem expected the total absence of women signatories saying it was “natural and logical because this current does not women to take part in society. Their thought and practices are opposed to women.” He added that debate was futile because of a lack of common ground between the two sides, with the debate centering on moral issues and the position of women in Saudi society. In his opinion, the issue of whether to allow women to drive was a small part in a wider debate and women were being kept prisoners by two radically opposed camps in society.

For his part, Khaled al Howeidy confirmed that, given the statement describes those who demand the right for women to drive as non-believers, fools, liars and corrupt creates the possibility to take the signatories to court for libel and slander, especially as supporters of the issue include members of the Shura Concil (Consultative Council) and other prominent figures.

In a phone conversation with Asharq Al Awsat, Prof. Abdul Aziz al Abdel Latif who teaches at the Mohammad bin Saud University and one of the signatories, reaffirmed his support for the statement and said that any discrepancy with cabinet decisions are a matter for the government to worry about.

The Saudi government had decided, on 13 th September 2004, in a meeting in Jeddah that all departments need to take the necessary measures against any employee who fails to be neutral and loyal to his position, whatever the job, and opposes state policies by taking part, directly or indirectly, in preparing a statement, report, letter, alone or as part of a group, or signing any of the above, or taking part in meetings or concealing such participation, with the aim of opposing government policies and programs.