RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving is not mandated by any text in Shariah, the Islamic legal code which forms the basis for most Saudi law, the head of its morality police said yesterday.
Sheikh Abdulatif Al Al Sheikh stressed that he had 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 Shariah, 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 Shariah does not have a text forbidding women driving,” said Al Al Sheikh, who was appointed by the Custodia of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz 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, 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 woman 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 yesterday 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 Shariah 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.