Saudi cleric questions women driving ban
Makkah, December 1, 2010
A top Saudi cleric has challenged a ban on women driving, saying women should be allowed more social participation in the kingdom.
"Clerics have studied the issue and no one has come up with a (Koran) verse that would forbid female driving...," Ahmad Al-Ghamdi, head of the Makkah region's Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, was quoted as saying in a Reuters report.
"I do not consider it to be forbidden," he told journalists on the sidelines of a women's empowerment event in Jeddah.
Women are subject to a male "guardianship" system which requires they show permission from their guardian -- father, brother or husband -- in order to travel or, sometimes, work.
Speaking at the conference on "Women's Participation in National Development", he said the kingdom's mixing ban should be applied only to men and women meeting in secret, not in public places -- a rule normally enforced by the religious police.
Islam "orders a woman to cover her body to allow her to participate in social life, not to prevent her from doing so," an AFP report quoted him as saying.
He also said women did not have to veil their faces to applause from his female audience.
"There is a difference in interpretation of the (Koranic) verse... which leads some scholars to rule that the whole body must be covered ... However other scholars approve showing the face, hands and elbows. And some even okayed the hair," he said.
Ghamdi has been on the front-line of the conflict between liberals and conservatives. He published a paper last year questioning the legality of gender segregation only to be fired from his post. The decision was later reversed.
In his latest remarks, he said however that fear of repercussions from hardliners was getting in the way of change.
"There is a lot of trepidation in the society," he said. "Even those who have a conviction about the importance of women's role in society are afraid of the harm and accusations that they may face and that is why a lot of people avoid opening that door."
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