The head of Saudi Arabia’s religious police said in an interview on Thursday that the kingdom’s ban on women driving was not religiously mandated, a day after the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat reported that members of the police force were being instructed not to stop women drivers. Though Sheikh Abdulatif Al al-Sheikh denied the Al-Hayat report, his statements along with the rumblings from within the religious police force, officially known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, could signal that some form of change is underway on the controversial policy.
Saudi women’s rights activists should not rejoice just yet, however. Al al-Sheikh’s statement that “Islamic sharia does not have a text forbidding women driving” — which only echoes the mainstream interpretation accepted by Islamic religious authorities in every other country — leaves a great deal of ambiguity about future enforcement of the ban in the kingdom. Al al-Sheikh emphasized that he does not have the authority to enact change on Saudi policy. However, there is no specific law banning women from driving and it is enforcement of the unofficial stricture by police that prevents any real change from taking place.
Members of the royal family have already voiced support for the idea among other reform efforts that would allow for more rights for women in the kingdom. Al al-Sheikh’s public support for a change on the driving ban — or lack of opposition, more likely — appears to put him in line with that push. Though his half-hearted statements and equivocation on the issue tip the police chief’s hand a bit: his primary motivation is likely less to do with women’s rights than the sustenance of his own organization.
Saudi Arabia’s religious police have never been known for their stellar public image. But the increasing tenacity and aggressive tactics of the force’s members, including high-speed car chases with sometimes devastating consequences, have hit their reputation hard alongside wider availability of documentation of their antics through social media. Al al-Sheikh himself was appointed in early 2012 in a bid to overhaul the force’s reputation after a slew of embarrassing incidents. New rules that allow women to ride bikes (with male supervision) reveal the glacial pace at which the organization is progressing. They are also several orders of magnitude below what an increasingly irate public may have had in mind.
Paying some lip service to gender equality is easy enough for Al al-Sheikh. But even if a move towards relaxing the prohibition is slowly on the way, his public backing is happening for the wrong reasons — reasons that only serve to entrench the institution primarily responsible for enforcing Saudi women’s social disenfranchisement.