May Allah be praised? Saudi women finally get to drive (for some vague, secular reason)

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Can anyone guess what was a major international religious event this past Tuesday?

Obviously, we're talking about Saudi Arabia’s decision to allow women to drive. Some of you may have heard a wave of applause around the world, as the Saudis were the international hold-outs on this issue.

Driving may not have a whole lot to do with religion, but Saudi Arabia's decision may say something about the lessening influence of Islamic radicals.

Ah, but here is the key for those who are concerned about religion-news coverage: I am not convinced that many scribes understood that. So let's see how some journalists explained this change. We start with BBC, the brand name in international news:

Saudi Arabia's King Salman has issued a decree allowing women to drive for the first time, to the joy of activists.
The Gulf kingdom is the only country in the world that bans women from driving. Until now, only men were allowed licenses and women who drove in public risked being arrested and fined. ...
Campaigner Sahar Nassif told the BBC from Jeddah that she was "very, very excited -- jumping up and down and laughing".
"I'm going to buy my dream car, a convertible Mustang, and it's going to be black and yellow!"

CNN noted the ruling had nothing to do with religion -- other than a ruling cabal of Wahhabi Islamists have long placed curbs on women being in any public place, including a car. So no religion, other than a symbolic change long opposed by a powerful group of Islamic leaders.

Asked by CNN why the announcement was made now, ambassador bin Salman said, "there is no wrong time to do the right thing." He added that "it's not religious nor a cultural issue" and said women "used to use transportation means during my grandfather's era."

The Arab News made the same point:

What is also remarkable, according to the official statement, is that the majority of Saudi Arabia’s Council of Senior Scholars endorsed the decision. This definitely sends the right message, and one we knew all along: There is nothing in Islam that religiously prohibits women driving, and the driving ban was a temporary social matter which will now no longer exist.

The New York Times, meanwhile, did provide some religious context:

Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest sites, is an absolute monarchy ruled according to Shariah law. Saudi officials and clerics have provided numerous explanations for the ban over the years.
Some said that it was inappropriate in Saudi culture for women to drive, or that male drivers would not know how to handle having women in cars next to them. Others argued that allowing women to drive would lead to promiscuity and the collapse of the Saudi family. One cleric claimed -- with no evidence -- that driving harmed women’s ovaries…
The ban has long marred the image of Saudi Arabia, even among its closest allies, like the United States, whose officials sometimes chafed at a policy shared only by the jihadists of the Islamic State and the Taliban.

Bloomberg News sent someone out on the streets of Riyadh to interview younger men, all of whom opposed the change.

Saudi women aren’t ready to drive because they’re culturally cloistered, said one of the men, a 28-year-old from Riyadh. He said it would cause females to “disobey” their families. His 24-year-old friend said the decision shouldn’t have been announced abruptly.
Just last week, the government suspended a regional religious official after videos of him mocking the idea of women driving went viral. He suggested that women had loose morals and limited brain capacity in general -- “a quarter of a brain” under certain circumstances -- and were thus unfit to drive.

There’s been online debates over where the Quran fits in all this. Most agree there’s no prohibition as long as the drivers are wearing hijabs or other cloak-like garments. After all, some reason, Mohammed’s wife Ayesha rode a camel, the closest thing to a car in 7th-century AD Bedouin society.

What has been behind religious prohibitions? Some say the presence of female drivers is too tempting. Etc., etc.

I know that most journalists buy the line that allowing women to drive is a societal change and not a religious one. They don't see a religion ghost here at all.

But in a country like Saudi Arabia where mosque and state are one, societal change is religious change. But are deviations from former ideologies any sign that Wahhabist ideals are loosening their grip on the Saudis? Or is the desert kingdom still the home of Sunni extremism with a smile, the source of millions of petro dollars that help spread Wahhabi doctrine to Islamic communities around the world?

The thing to watch is what will happen to the Saudi religious police. Their powers have already been curbed and the end of the driving ban makes them even more redundant.

The less power they have, the less extreme daily Islamic practices will be in Saudi society. These trends are fascinating. Let's hope more media are watching. To see a news story, you have to be willing to look for it.

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