Saudi driving ban not part of sharia - morality police chief

Sheikh Abdulatif Al al-Sheikh says he has no authority to change Saudi policy on women driving

Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving is not mandated by any text in Sharia, the Islamic legal code which forms the basis for most Saudi law, the head of its morality police has told Reuters.

Sheikh Abdulatif Al al-Sheikh stressed that he has no authority to change Saudi policy on women driving, but his comment may feed into a national discussion in Saudi Arabia, where women have in the past been arrested for defying the ban.

Although Saudi Arabia has no written legal code to go with the texts making up sharia, its police and judiciary have long enforced a prohibition on women driving, citing the country's conservative customs.

Even without any specific law against women driving, women who defied the prohibition have been arrested by the country's regular police department and put on trial on charges that include causing public disturbance.

"Islamic sharia does not have a text forbidding women driving," said Al al-Sheikh, who was appointed by King Abdullah last year to head the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the formal name of the religious police.

King Abdullah has pushed for cautious social and economic reforms in the world's top oil exporter, including efforts to give women a more prominent role in society.

Al al-Sheikh said that in his role as head of the morality police, he did not make policy but implemented the rules and laws of the kingdom.

He said that the morality police had not pursued or stopped any women for driving since he was made head of the organisation and said he was not aware of such cases before his appointment.

But he added that a report in the Arabic daily al-Hayat on Thursday that members of the morality police had recently been instructed not to pursue or stop women drivers in future was untrue.

"We have not given any new instructions," he said.

Saudi Arabia's morality police was set up as an informal institution in the 1930s to enforce public morals according to the strict interpretation of sharia in the kingdom's official Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam.

It is now a branch of the state, with a permanent staff and annual budget. Al al-Sheikh, like its previous heads, is a religious scholar.

King Abdullah's reform efforts, such as appointing women to the advisory Shoura Council and promoting female employment, have sometimes incurred opposition among conservatives in the country's powerful Wahhabi clergy.

"The era of King Abdullah is an era of reform and development of all state organisations, including the Commission," said Al al-Sheikh.

Al al-Sheikh said he has worked to improve the body's image over the past 18 months by clamping down on members who exceed their authority and encouraging a lighter hand in its dealing with the public.

"We implement the rules strictly if the Commission people exceed their powers. We don't allow them to interpret the law themselves," he said.

Women's rights groups in the conservative Islamic kingdom have been agitating for a change in the rules. In addition to being banned from driving, Saudi women must seek the approval of a male relative, known as their "guardian", to travel, get a job, open a bank account or have some forms of elective surgery.

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Posted by: Kathie Johnston

@Rogue - where did I state that I think everywhere is exactly the same as Canada or that it should be? I have travelled a great deal and I am well aware that that is not the case. I embrace other cultures and in fact my boyfriend is Muslim but that doesn't mean I have to think it is ok for women to be mistreated in certain parts of the world. Furthermore, just because something is "normal" doesn't make it right!!!

Posted by: roger

There should be no general restriction on women driving. However I find it hard to believe that it is safe for woment drive with only a small slit for their eyes (and then the women wear dark glasses). In most countries this would not be allowed. Drive yes but dress appropriately.

Posted by: Mark X

Have you not heard that "Driver less" cars like the driver less Dubai Metro are being developed by major car manufacturers. The Saudi women will be driving these soon. What will the Saudi Police do then? Catch the Driver Less Drivers?????

Posted by: Oldtimer

If clinging on to obscure, old, irrational, traditional practices and refusing to change with the times responsibly is not staying in the dark ages, then what is? They didn't think twice about jumping from the camel into the Cadillac did they? Or staying in modern concrete buildings? Or using mobile phones? They didn't want any more time to ponder over and transition into accepting all these, did they? Why just this over the top repression of women? Morality is good, nay important, but this is ridiculous! I don't see any difference between the Saudi society and the Taleban society in Afganistan and tribal Pakistan!

Posted by: one of the joes

@rogue and other traditionalists
Before cars were introduced in Saudi, men and women used to ride camels, donkeys. women were riding - no segregation of genders.

Traditionally there was no tradition regarding driving cars.

The view that women should not drive cars was invented outside the frame of tradition, it's a new invention.
And I believe we have established that this view has no roots in Islam.

Please try explaining your views on tradition and psychology - so far it does not seem to make a lot of sense. Thank you.

Posted by: rogue

The complexity of the human mind and psyche is even difficult for so called experts to understand much more to people like you and me. So please do not try to judge people on the basis of your understanding of how things should work. There is no argument that they should change in this aspect but you cannot change overnight a belief and custom that has been engraved in each one's mind for so many years. The mere fact that they are even discussing it is already a huge leap forward and I believe they will finally accept this very challenging change. When jumped from camel to Cadillac, they did not change any belief, did they? The objective is still to move from one place to another. Only the mode of transport has changed. Same way with their living quarters, it is still a requirement for a roof over their head. Only this time it is concrete and not a tent. So instead of throwing barbs at them, why not root for them and encourage them to continue the path to change.

Posted by: Lee

There you go! Most people including the Saudis can't comprehend how King Abdallah is changing the stubborn minds of his people. He understands that leadership is the most important factor in society and he is changing the old guards. God bless him, I wish him a very long and healthy life.

Posted by: Kathie Johnston

I am not of limited intelligence but thank you for your insult. I am well aware that it takes time for cultural norms to change. What I have an issue with is that "cultural norms" are often used as a means to discriminate against women and control women and this must change and is taking far too long in some parts of the world. Those of us who enjoy the luxury of freedom and have grown up with freedom and democracy and the right to do as we please simply feel bad for our sisters in places of the world where this does not exist. Please don't for one minute compare the amazing and democratic Country of Canada with the KSA where people are still beheaded which is barbaric and disgusting. There is no simply no comparison to be made. We welcome all nationalities, religions, and embrace multiple cultures and traditions. That is one of the many things that makes our Country so very special.

Posted by: frank F

@ Kathie Johnston, The people of this region are saying the same thing: The fact that there is even a discussion over whether or not women should wear burqa in 2013 is absolutely ridiculous. When are France, Switzerland, Canada etc going to exit the dark ages?

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