It would not be an exaggeration to say that the decision of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman to allow women to drive is the most important decision for Saudi women in the modern history of Saudi Arabia since the decision taken by King Faisal to open schools for girls.
There is a gap of half a century between the two historic decisions. When in the early 1960s King Faisal took the decision that girls could go to school, there were those who supported and opposed education for girls. Each side supported their arguments with evidence to confirm that they were right and the other side was wrong. Writers and columnists wrote articles and authors wrote books on the topic. Seminars were held and lectures were delivered to warn about the danger of educating girls.
However, when King Faisal took the decision, everyone was silent. Schools for girls were opened all over the Kingdom. Before that, there had only been a limited number of private schools where the daughters of affluent and influential families received an education.
Some considered the education for girls to be taboo and illegal. The people of some regions of the country protested against opening schools for girls, and sent delegations of prominent local community figures to meet King Faisal with an appeal not to open schools in their localities. However, King Faisal’s response was decisive and strong.
He said unequivocally that schools would be opened and would remain open, but no one would be compelled to send their daughters to study there. The King also told them that if anyone forced them to send their daughters to school, then they should inform him about it and he would see that justice was done.
Preventing women from driving cars became a weapon for all those who wanted to attack Saudi Arabia, and slander it in the Kingdom and abroadDr. Ali Al-Ghamdi
Accepting the directive
The delegations had no option other than listening to the monarch and accepting his directive. A few years following this decision, there was not a single Saudi girl who stayed at home and did not go to school in those regions.
As far as women driving is concerned, it is interesting to note that at first the car itself was a taboo not only for women but for everyone. Some considered the car to be a creature of Satan and felt that it was not permissible either to own or use it. Later, it became acceptable only for men. But, for women, driving a car continued to remain a taboo and was a matter that was not even debatable.
However, with the passage of time and the spread of education, disputes began between those who considered it an absolute taboo and those who saw it as permissible in religion, as well as between those who disapproved of it socially, and those who advocated it as a right for women. Each group came out strongly with their arguments along with evidence to substantiate their viewpoints.
In the course of time, those who absolutely rejected women being able to drive refrained from labeling it a taboo and took the position that driving was not good for women as it entailed risks and dangers for them. Some others who are part of the religious establishment even claimed that driving was harmful to women’s ovaries. They drew attention to some studies in this regard to support their claim but failed to specifically point out which institutions had carried out the studies and when they had done so. This showed that such claims were untrue and unreliable.
Similarly, one preacher, who enjoys popularity and has a large number of followers on social media, said: “Driving a car negatively affects the female gland.” At the same time, he also pointed out that he forgot the name of the gland.
Divergence of views
There was a divergence of views even among women as to whether or not it was permissible to allow women to drive. There were a number of women who rejected the very idea of allowing women to drive under any circumstances. They considered driving to be a danger for women both in religious and social terms. Even after the issuance of the royal decree allowing women to drive, some religious figures came out with the condition that it must be strictly in line with Shariah regulations.
However, some women continued to remain opposed to the idea of women driving, considering it to be a conspiracy against religion, women and society on the part of the West and by those who are influenced by Western culture. There was a time when some women rallied and drove vehicles in defiance of all those who opposed women driving. There were also instances where police stopped them and took them into custody not because it was a taboo but because of driving without a license.
Preventing women from driving cars became a weapon for all those who wanted to attack the Kingdom and slander it both within the Kingdom and abroad.
Finally, after a long period of dispute and claims and counterclaims with regard to the issue of women driving, King Salman’s order came allowing women to drive from June next year. The King has ordered the competent authorities to complete all the necessary procedures to implement the royal directive. All the arguments in favor of women driving and against it came to a halt following the King’s order.
The majority of members of the Council of Senior Scholars have backed the decision, emphasizing that it is permissible in Islamic Shariah. Hence, this decision becomes the most important decision as far as Saudi women are concerned since the decision to open schools for girls more than 50 years ago.
This article was first published in the Saudi Gazette on October 4, 2017.
Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi is a former Saudi diplomat who specializes in Southeast Asian affairs. He can be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter @DrAliAlghamdi.