- Kingdom is only country in world that bans women from driving
- Women need guardian’s consent to get passport, travel overseas
Saudi Arabia isn’t ready to end the world’s only ban on women driving, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said, arguing it’s not just a matter of ending strictures imposed by the kingdom’s austere form of Islam.
Allowing women to drive is “not a religious issue as much as it is an issue that relates to the community itself that either accepts it or refuses it,” said the 30-year-old prince, who has amassed unprecedented powers since his father, King Salman, ascended to the throne. “The community is not convinced about women driving” and sees negative consequences if it’s allowed, the prince said on Monday after outlining a plan to reduce the kingdom’s reliance on oil.
The prince had signaled his support for more freedom for women during an interview this month, saying “we believe women have rights in Islam that they’ve yet to obtain.” But when asked about the driving ban by a reporter on Monday, he said reform couldn’t be rushed. “Changes could happen in the future and we always hope they will be positive changes,” he said.
Attempts at broad social liberalization could jeopardize the closer ties that the Al Saud family struck with Wahhabi clerics after armed fundamentalists in 1979 seized Mecca’s Grand Mosque and demanded an end to efforts to modernize the Saudi state. Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh recently said allowing women to drive was “a dangerous matter that should not be permitted.”
Yet the sort sort of industries Prince Mohammed wants to lure to Saudi Arabia to wean it off its oil dependency are unlikely to come to a country with major strictures on women. Saudi women also need a guardian’s consent to receive a passport, travel outside the country or marry. A 2015 gender gap index by the World Economic Forum ranked Saudi Arabia as among the worst countries to be a woman, placing it at 134 out of 145 nations.
King Abdullah had expanded the rights of women in the world’s biggest oil exporter before his death in early 2015. Amid opposition from traditionalist clerics and their followers, the late king opened the first coeducational university, named the first female deputy minister and said women can vote and run in municipal polls. Many Saudi women want more rapid change.
“We were very disappointed,” said Muneerah Sulaiman, a 26-year-old lawyer in Riyadh, after the prince’s comments on Monday. “I don’t understand the argument of people who appose it on religious grounds,” she said. “How is it OK to have a strange man drive women around, which is against Islamic teachings, but not OK to drive yourself around? It doesn’t make any sense.”