A powerful Saudi prince has said that the kingdom is not ready to allow women to drive, dashing hopes for quick political reforms in the ultra-conservative Gulf state.
Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, increasingly seen as the power behind the Saudi throne, dismissed suggestions that the driving ban would be soon lifted as he unveiled an economic plans for the cash-strapped kingdom on Monday.
Despite insisting that he wanted to increase women’s participation in the workforce from 22 per cent to 30 per cent, the 30-year-old prince shied from pushing further reforms.
“So far the society is not persuaded (by women driving) — and it has negative influence — but we stress that it is up to the Saudi society,” he said, arguing that change could not be forced.
It is not a “a religious issue as much as it is an issue that relates to the community itself that either accepts it or refuses it”, the prince added.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are not allowed behind the wheel. Although there is no written law barring female citizens from driving, they are not issued local licences making it effectively illegal for them to drive.
The oil-rich nation has some of the world’s toughest restrictions on women, who are legally forced to wear loose-fitting gowns and cannot move anywhere without a chaperone. They cannot open bank accounts, accept certain jobs, attend university, undergo medical procedures or travel outside the country without permission from a male guardian, usually their husband or a relative.
Prominent clerics have consistently cautioned against lifting the bans and issued religious decrees against women driving. Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh recently said that allowing women to drive was “a dangerous matter that should not be permitted”. In 2013 the popular Sheikh Saleh al-Lohaidan said women risked damaging their ovaries and producing children with clinical problems if they drove.
Women’s protest movements began to hit back following the 2011 Arab Spring with Saudi rights activists like Wajeha al-Huwaider and Manal Al-Sharif organising campaigns where women flouted the ban and videoed themselves driving.
But it was met with fierce resistance from the authorities. In September 2011 Shaima Jastania was sentenced to ten lashes for driving in Jeddah, although the sentence was later overturned.
In October 2013 the campaign was reignited, and garnered 11,000 signatures but a crackdown from the authorities crippled the movement.