The grand mufti of Saudi Arabia has said a ban on women driving in the conservative Gulf state protects society from “evil”, AFP reported on Thursday.
Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh, in a speech delivered Wednesday in the western city of Medina, said the issue of giving women the right to drive should not be “one of society’s major concerns.”
The kingdom’s most senior cleric called for “the matter to be considered from the perspective of protecting society from evil” which, according to him, included letting women drive.
His comments came as activists said they had been assured by Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef that authorities were reassessing the controversial Saudi ban on women drivers.
“Rest assured that the issue is being discussed, and expect a good outcome,” the minister was quoted as saying by activists who met him.
The absolute monarchy is the only country in the world where women are barred from driving, a regulation that has drawn condemnation from the international community.
Prince Mohammed stressed that the ban was “a matter to be decided by the legislative authority”, the activist, Aziza al-Yusef, told AFP.
Saudi Arabia has an all-appointed consultative Shura Council, with no elected parliament. The council makes recommendations to the government, but the king remains the absolute legislator.
“We expect a royal decree that gives us this right,” Yusef said.
A long-standing campaign aimed at getting the Saudi Arabian driving ban lifted has recently urged women to defy the ban.
Many women have driven since the campaign was launched in 2011, some of them have posted videos of them doing so, and many have been arrested and forced to sign a pledge that they will never drive again.
Last year, a Saudi women’s rights activist filed a lawsuit against the country’s interior ministry over the ban.
Last month, at least 16 women were stopped by police during a driving protest day and were fined and forced along with their male guardians to promise to obey the kingdom’s laws.
In addition to the driving ban, Saudi women are forced to cover themselves from head to toe and need permission from a male guardian to travel, work and marry.
Human rights group Amnesty International recently released a scathing report which levels harsh criticism against Saudi Arabia, accusing it of failing to live up to its pledge to improve human rights.