On 27 September, the Council of Senior Scholars, the highest clerical council in Saudi Arabia, endorsed the royal decree allowing women to drive, thereby disrupting years of ultra-conservative fatwas and religious opinions by the kingdom's leading religious scholars including current and former grand muftis and council members.
In a statement published by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA), the council said that King Salman had issued the decree to serve "the best religious and worldly interests of the country and people," agreeing that Islam allows women the right to drive.
In attempt to defend previous fatwas banning driving and to avoid alienating dissatisfied hardline adherents to Wahhabi Salafism, the council said that the current fatwas are "based on the benefits and disadvantages of women driving" evaluated first by the ruler and then by clerics and the women's male guardians: "Male guardians will have to consider both sides of this issue." In short, women will first have to get permission from a male guardian just to apply for a driver's license.
It seems that the main and only winner of all this is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
It seems that the main and only winner of the Saudi royal decree allowing women to drive is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (Photo by Nicolas Asfouri - Pool/Getty Images)
For a start, the council's endorsement of the royal decree proves clearly that senior clerics' fatwas and opinions are open to dramatic changes. Their fatwas are not fixed or unchangeable. Council members, including the current and former muftis, had banned women driving. The council's endorsement also emphasizes that the king is more powerful in facing the clerics and cares more about his people. The new decree emphasizes the image of the new king as a powerful, great and disruptive reformer.
These developments also implicitly hurt the image of most of powerful clerics who previously banned women driving, whether they have changed their opinions or not. Such developments lead people to believe that clerics' fatwas have been just reflections of what rulers want, that the clerics are yes-men and not independent.
Development such as allowing women to apply for drivers' licenses throw into doubt all fatwas and statements issued by all clerics, dead or alive, who may contradict any of King Salman's future decrees or decisions. The most challenging one is the kingdom's possible formal recognition of Israel and normalizing relationships with it.
As for deceased clerics, such as the former grand mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz ibn Baz and the popular and influential Sheikh Mohamed ibn al-Uthaymeen, Saudi citizens think that if these clerics were alive today, they would have changed those fatwas exactly as the current council members and the current grand mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al-Alsheikh did. As head of the council of senior scholars, he endorsed the royal decree -- in direct contradiction to his fatwa last year. Saudi people will now think that senior clerics change their fatwas and religious opinions after the king, and will realize that their authority is secondary to the king's and therefore should not be their main reference.
This change also leads Saudi people to believe that the king knows their "religious and worldly interests" better than the clerics, and that the clerics can be favorably (or unfavorably) flexible and moderate, even about women's issues. Such a shift may be judged favorably or unfavorably depending on how liberal or conservative or liberal one is. If, then, the king is enough, who needs clerics in social and political life?
To ward off any influence that clerics who did not changed their opinions might have, they were quickly deemed extremists, banned, arrested or banned. The online newspaper Sabq said that the punishment for "mocking" royal decrees is up to five years in jail.
King Salman has so far successfully managed to minimize the power of clerics and get their support as well. He was able clearly to show his people that the political authority is in his hand and clerics share nothing of it; they just following him and are not necessarily reliable. The king, however, is still supported by the clerics.
Clerics therefore seems to have lost a big part of their credibility and influence; what remains can be utilized by the king when needed, to lead the judiciary and education sectors to legalize, enforce, and sustain reforms, changes and policies.
It also seems that for the first years of implementing the driving decree, the government may detach itself from direct responsibility for enabling women to drive. Even though a woman can now apply for license, her male guardian may not give her permission to get a license; or he might let her get a license but then not let her drive. The government cannot force him to give her permission to get a license or to drive. The woman is not able to blame the government, but only her male guardian. Yes, the government may technically have annulled the driving ban but it has issued nothing actually to help women to drive.
Enabling women is still therefore in the hands of their male guardians and many will probably not allow their women to drive -- for different reasons. In the view of many, driving exposes women to "evil": to mix with men on roads, gas stations, traffic police departments; women might abuse freedom to drive and go out without guardian's supervision; wicked men may cause harm to driving women, and so on.
Any discontent felt by angry men who want total control over their women, household or other people will probably not allow their women to drive. If women are disappointed or frustrated by this domination, the blame then stays mainly within the family; the government will not be blamed.
The real challenge King Salman needs to face now is how to deal with calls for abolishing male guardianship -- a far more urgent and significant reform that, after calculating the risks and rewards, could well be indefinitely postponed.
A.Z. Mohamed is a Muslim born and raised in the Middle East.