Saudi religious authorities back women-driving, contradicting years of opposition
The Council of Senior Scholars on Wednesday endorsed the historic move, which risks alienating hardline adherents to the state-sanctioned Wahhabi school of Islam.
In a statement published by the SPA state news agency, the council said King Salman had issued the decree to serve "the best interests of the country and people", agreeing that Islam allows women the right to drive.
"All the scholars of Islamic law have decided to let the shepherd lead his flock depending on the benefits of the situation," it said, adding that women will have to obtain permission from a male guardian to get hold of a driving licence.
"All of the previous fatwas concerning women driving were based on the benefits and disadvantages. Male guardians will have to look into both sides of this issue," it added.
The lifting of the ban on women driving joins a long list of previous prohibitions in Saudi Arabia such as women appearing in the media, satellite television and music.
The support of the powerful clerics, who hold influence in the judiciary and education sectors, throws out years of religious edicts from the country's Islamic thinkers and risks giving the impression the clerics answer blindly to the rulers.
The former Grand Mufti Abdel Aziz bin Baz had argued that lifting the ban would corrupt society with promiscuity and sin.
Senior council member, Saleh al-Fawzan, defended the ban, asserting that it would force women to take off their full-face veils to let them to see the road and allow them to leave the house at night.
Wahhabi giant Mohamed ibn al-Uthaymeen backed the ban because according to him driving would lead the free-mixing of men and women at traffic lights, petrol stations, police checkpoints as well as other car-related encounters.
One cleric even claimed that driving would damage women's ovaries and hurt their fertility.
Last week, a cleric who said women should not be allowed to drive because they have a "quarter" of the brainpower of men was banned from preaching.
In a likely measure to ward off criticism from conservatives on the landmark move, online newspaper Sabq said on Tuesday that punishment for people "mocking" royal decrees was no longer than five years in jail.
Despite Saudi traffic law failing to explicitly prohibit women from driving, they were not issued licenses and were detained if they attempted to drive.