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Has the tide turned on the Saudi government’s stand on the issue of women driving? As the only country in the world I know of that denies women the right to drive, has the thinking that governs the powers to be moved towards the lifting of an age-old embargo?

It would seem so, considering that one major hurdle has been lifted by recent statements from none other than the president of the Saudi religious police, who recently stated publicly that “the ban on women driving is not mandated by any text in the Sharia”.

Shaikh Abdul Latif Al Shaikh, President of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (the religious police) said that Sharia, the Islamic legal code which is the basis for much of the kingdom’s laws, “does not have a text forbidding women driving”.

This is good news for many Saudis and residents alike, frustrated by the ban on women driving. The religious police has long been considered one of the staunchest bastions of opposition when it comes to women’s issues and female empowerment, and many of its members have claimed that driving is a “path to vice and social degradation”.

Hardliners took it upon themselves to flash the religion card without any authenticated backing to their dismissive claims against progressive initiatives. With the Al Shaikh stating that it is not for his organisation to mandate the law, but simply to uphold it, the ball is back in the government’s court.

In the kingdom, an unnatural culture of dependency coupled with built-in frustration has evolved as a result of the influx of millions of expatriate male drivers, many who get behind the wheel for the first time in their host country.

Add to that the social and cultural disparity as a result of this large group of unskilled expatriates that reside in practically every home, and social development takes a back seat.

In the same week, the Saudi Ministry of Education rejected calls by religious men to call off sports classes in private girls’ schools. This contentious issue was something that ran along the same lines as the driving ban, as hardliners had asserted on many occasions in the past that sports for girls would be detrimental to their honour, their virginity, and would contribute to their moral decadence.

In this latest instance, a vigilante force of some 30 men claiming to uphold and spread virtue and prevent vice, marched to the ministry and demanded from officials to cancel sports classes in the schools based on their arguments. In their view, any activity that demanded that girls participate in sports was totally un-Islamic.

Education Minister Prince Faisal Bin Abdullah had earlier taken a different view. He was firm in his directive that all education authorities in the kingdom initiate the steps necessary “that would enable girls to practice sports in their schools in a manner that would conform to Islamic teachings while improving their physical fitness”.

Moderate Saudis see a significant shift behind such actions. Many could not understand why driving or indulging in sports by women was considered a sin. But to go against the religion card is not a frivolous matter. And the dread of being accused of apostasy kept many voices muzzled.

Whereas in the past, the demands of hardliners was almost considered a law into itself, in recent years there has been a dramatic shift towards a more tolerant position of acceptance of all things obviously not detrimental or conflicting with the teachings of Islam. Such a shift also signals a separation of the often veiled cultural traditions that were deeply intertwined with Islam, making it difficult to separate one from the other.

Urban-dwellers who had long advocated a more accepting approach towards the empowerment of women had in recent decades been deluged into submission by the cultural traditions of the rural populace, who as they made their shift towards urban centres in search of jobs also began to force upon the rest of society their own traditions and beliefs. Many of them had even joined the various branches of government service including the ministry of education and resisted changes from within.

But in recent times, the forces for progress have begun to grab back the initiative. In drafting law after law, the kingdom is making itself transparent in that it is no longer content to be held back by the whims of hardliners who would like nothing better than to subjugate women and push us all back into the stone age.

A few years ago, King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz had said: “I believe strongly in the rights of women ... my mother is a woman, my sister is a woman, my daughter is a woman, and my wife is a woman. I believe the day will come when women drive. In fact, if you look at the areas in Saudi Arabia, the deserts and in the rural areas, you will find that women do drive. The issue will require patience. In time, I believe it will be possible. Yes, I believe we can. But it will require a little bit of time ... Our people are just now beginning to open up to the world, and I believe that with the passing of days in the future everything is possible.”

Many Saudis would say today that the time has finally arrived.


Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@talmaeena