03:24 GMT +317 July 2019
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    Saudi activist Manal Al Sharif

    'Driving Exposes Women to Evil' - Saudi Cleric

    © AFP 2019 / Marwan Naamani
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    Rights for women have long been a contentious issue in Saudi Arabia, and recent comments by the country's most senior cleric Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin-Abdullah al-Sheikh have reignited protests surrounding the continued ban on female drivers.

    In an interview with the religious TV channel Almajd, he said that driving is "a dangerous matter that exposes women to evil" and warned that families wouldn't be able to keep track of the whereabouts of female relatives were they permitted to drive. 

    The ban on female drivers is just one of a number of restrictions which apply to women under Saudi Arabia's male guardianship system, which Human Rights Watch have called "discriminatory." The system ensures that women are forbidden from obtaining a passport, marrying or enrolling in higher education without the approval of a male guardian. 

    Despite Saudi Arabia's highly controversial record on human rights, including punishments such as death by stoning for adultery and death for blasphemy and homosexuality, the regime is somewhat anomalous in that it remains a long-term ally of western countries like the UK and the USA.

    So much so that the UK Government was actually very close to agreeing to a contract regarding the running of Saudi Prison services last year, although the UK Ministry of Justice ultimately backed out of the deal following pressure from cabinet members and the leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn. 

    UK Prime Minister David Cameron defended criticisms of the UK's relationship with Saudi Arabia earlier this year, saying: "our relationship with Saudi Arabia is important for our own security." Although the US continues to have strong ties with Saudi Arabia, President Barack Obama is understood to be privately critical of that relationship. 

    Some progress has been made, in that women were allowed to stand, and vote in municipal elections for the first time in 2015. In the same year though, Loujain al-Hathloul — a women's rights activist — attempted to drive across the border to Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emerites, for which she received a 10-week jail sentence.  

    Despite sustained criticism from human rights advocates, western governments' attitudes towards the Saudi regime seem unlikely to alter any time soon, likewise the country's male guardianship system.   

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    Tags:
    Middle East, driving, women's rights, execution, human rights, death penalty, Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia
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