The issue of women driving in Saudi Arabia is again a topic of public discussion, following an extraordinary incident that took place during the recent flooding in the city of Jeddah. A 15-year-old girl named Malak Al-Mutairi managed to extricate herself from a partially submerged car, and then got in the family jeep and towed other vehicles and their occupants to safety, saving her own family and eight others.
Following the incident, columnists in the Saudi press wrote that the lesson to be learned here is that girls must be taught to swim – and to drive. One of the prominent responses was by Sheikh Ahmad bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz ibn Baz, an Islamic affairs researcher and the son of former Saudi mufti Sheikh 'Abd Al-'Aziz ibn Baz (1912-1999). The latter issued a fatwa in 1990 which prohibited women from driving; his son now argues that freedom of movement is one of the rights that Islam gives women, and that the 1990 fatwa is no longer valid.
The following are excerpts from several articles on this subject:
Islam Gives Women Freedom of Movement
In his article in the Saudi daily Al-Watan, Sheikh Ahmad bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz ibn Baz wrote: "...First of all, [women] driving is a matter of the [human] rights... that Islam gave [women]; they include the right to possession and the right to freedom of movement...
"[When a woman] lives in a palace, with a lot of property, servants, and drivers... gets around by taxi... and saves money to pay the wages of a [foreign] driver... these are not luxuries. Islam gave her the right to live with dignity, and to protect herself and her property, because she is equal to a man...
"Property and freedom are [every] individual's birthright... they are not something that is granted [as a favor], or something that [needs to be] voted on...
"The fear that women will be attacked [if they drive] does not warrant preventing them from driving. This is a crucial problem of safety and of upbringing, [but] it is not [the women's] problem. Our clerics once banned women from driving for considerations that are not relevant today, and there is no point in discussing them again. This article calls for giving [women] their human and legitimate dignity, and the rights granted them by Islam." 
In an interview on Al-Arabiya TV, ibn Baz stated that his father's 1990 fatwa was issued during the first Gulf War based on national and security considerations, but that since then the reality has changed: "Rulings on contemporary issues are made based on an examination of the reality, [and] the reality can change with the time and place and with the people and circumstances [involved]. Therefore, fatwas can change with the times... I am not saying that my father's fatwas were deficient... I [only] mean to say that my father issued a fatwa for a specific person in specific circumstances, and this fatwa does not necessarily apply to another person just because there is some similarity [between the two cases]. I mean to say that the circumstances and times may be different, so one cannot extrapolate [from one case to another]...
"My article did not refer only to women's driving, but also to [their other] legitimate rights, which are sometimes disregarded based on artificial and illogical arguments that drown in a sea of excuses..."
Parents, Teach Your Daughters to Swim – And to Drive
Al-Watan columnist 'Abdallah Nasr Al-Fawzan contrasted the incident of the girl from Jeddah with another incident, in which schoolgirls trapped in a bus that was swept away by the floods did not even attempt to escape: "...[These two incidents] teach us several significant lessons: [One] is that we have gone way overboard in loyalty to the [principle] of concealing the woman, at the expense of other essential things.
As a result, the woman in our society has become weak, incapacitated, and unable to take any initiative. Not only is she incapable of helping others during disasters, she is even incapable of helping herself.
"The second lesson is that the weakness, incapacity, and inability to take initiative from which women in our society suffer are not connected to their [natural] constitution – but to how they are raised. Miss Malak Al-Mutairi, unique among her sex, apparently received a different upbringing; she not only saved herself... but rescued, all by herself... several families, using a big vehicle that she herself drove and which she used to tow smaller cars.
"Yet another lesson, and the most important one, is that we must all teach our girls to swim, run, and be resourceful in rescuing themselves and others. Yes, teach your daughters swimming and [teach them] to think [for themselves]... [Knowing] how to swim is always essential, and it becomes even more essential because we built our cities in wadis and riverbeds where flash-floods occur. [For this reason,] we are more exposed [and at risk of] drowning, as we saw during the Jeddah [flooding].
"Teach your daughters to swim, [and let them] wear clothing that won't impede them from moving swiftly when it is necessary to do so – and do not heed those voices that have turned the [principle] of concealing [the woman], however well-intentioned, into fetters that lead to her weakness and helplessness..."
Women Who Drive Can Save Lives
In a similar vein, liberal Saudi columnist Halima Muzaffar wrote in her column in Al-Watan: "...The matter [under discussion] is not the story of Malak, who rescued her father, her brothers, and eight [other] Saudi families... What is we should pay attention to first of all are the other stories, and the fate of the women and girls who were among the 132 victims of the [recent] floods. Anyone who carefully reads the list of the victims will find that most of them were women and children.
"The most important question is: What would have happened if these mothers had been capable of driving and could have transported their children to a safe place as soon as they had discerned the danger – instead of phoning their husbands and fathers and waiting for them to come from their workplaces to rescue them? Had this been the case, the number of dead would not have been so great. Furthermore, what if [some of] these women were widows, divorcees, or orphans with no relatives? Who could they wait for when no one at the emergency center answered their call due to the overload?
"These women are not victims of corruption that created cracks in Jeddah's asphalt [and infrastructure]. They are the victims of the interminable waiting for their husbands and [male] relatives, whose first thought was who would rescue them. The men were held up because of the chaos during the disaster – and by the time they got to their women and children, they found only drowned corpses.
"As a society, we have taken our time in letting women learn to drive, at least in order to give them an opportunity to try to save themselves and their children in time of disaster. Moreover, what would have happened if the man of the house himself was in danger? [In that case, his wife] would have had to save his life and the lives of their children. Wouldn't that be better than calling the rescue squad and then sitting and waiting to die?...
Cartoon: The Time for Women to Drive Is Almost Here
Cartoonist: 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Zahrani
Source: Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), January 17, 2010
 The religious law in Saudi Arabia prohibits women from driving, and a Saudi woman seen driving a car is subject to arrest. For example, in November 6, 2009 two women lecturers were arrested after driving their own cars in protest against the ban. www.news-sa.com, November 7, 2009. www.news-sa.com, November 7, 2009.
The issue of women driving has been a topic of discussion in the country in the past; see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 402, "The Public Debate in Saudi Arabia on Women Driving," November 6, 2007.
 Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), January 6, 2010.
 Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), January 15, 2010.
 Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), January 9, 2010.
 Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), January 12, 2010.