The ban against women driving in Saudi Arabia dates all the way back to a 1991 fatwa issued by the late grand mufti against gender “mixing,” according to embassy cables released by WikiLeaks.
“The grand mufti claimed that allowing women to drive would result in public ‘mixing’ of women, put women into dangerous situations because they could be alone in cars, and therefore result in social chaos,” a cable read.
The debate over women driving was brought into the limelight in May after a Saudi woman, Manal al-Sharif, was arrested for organizing an online campaign to encourage women to drive. Al-Sharif had recorded a video that showed her driving in Riyadh (watch the video below), but later gave up her campaign and apologized to the king.
Leaked cables reveal that the Obama administration has been quietly putting pressure on Saudi Arabia to allow women to drive long before Sharif’s campaign, according to the Guardian.
A dispatch from Riyadh described Saudi Arabia as “the world's largest women's prison.”
The dispatch reports that another female right-to-drive campaigner, Wajeha al-Huwaider, has been unable to leave the country despite having a valid passport because she is divorced, and has not received permission to leave from her ex-husband, father, or brother.
In July 2009, the female driving ban was reportedly about to be overturned, with assurances by billionaire tycoon and Saudi royal Prince Waleed that King Abdullah was in support of women's rights. Waleed even called the ban a “demeaning” tribal custom.
But when Abdullah appointed the country's first woman deputy minister in 2009 and opened a mixed-sex science university “with much fanfare” before foreign dignitaries, the backlash was instant.
One cleric, Saad Nasser al-Shithri, denounced the king’s “teaching of deviant ideas such as evolution,” and another cleric, Sheikh Salman al-Duwaysh, said the “mixing with women ... [would] open the field for them to undertake jobs for which they were not created.”
Al-Duwaysh said women had “abandoned their basic duties such as housekeeping, bringing up children ... and replaced this by beautifying themselves and wantonness.”
And in February 2010, Saudi cleric Sheikh Abdul Rahman Al-Barrak issued a fatwa calling for those who promote co-educational environments to be put to death, Arab News reported.
“Whoever allows this mixing allows forbidden things, and whoever allows them is an infidel and this means defection from Islam. Either he retracts or he must be killed because he disavows and does not observe the Shariah,” Barrak said.
But despite the diplomatic failure of the U.S. to encourage gender “mixing,” the cables also reported that many women drive in Saudi despite the ban.
“Women drive on private property such as desert farms or residential compounds beyond reach of police ... in rural areas women routinely drive out of necessity, without being stopped ... a woman driving in some Saudi villages is considered normal,” a dispatch read.
Sharif’s video showed that in Riyadh, however, it is not considered normal.
Watch her original video, with English translation, below: