Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s decision to lift his country’s ban on women drivers in 2018 was received with great excitement, including in Israel, as a positive sign of progress in the kingdom. But few know that you don’t have to go as far as Saudi Arabia to encounter a similar ban; it can also be found here in Israel, among religious Druze. But this ban has been facing new pushback in recent years, within the community.
At a Druze conference at the University of Haifa last month, Sheikh Imad Abu Rish, a judge on the Druze religious court, surprised attendees when he said, “Personally, I don’t oppose women getting a driver’s license.” He added that a religious committee headed by the community’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Muwafak Tarif, is currently examining this issue.
At the conference, Abu Rish stressed that his remark was aimed solely at religious Druze women, since the ban does not apply to secular Druze. In a separate conversation, Abu Rish told Haaretz, “We need to examine this issue, learn its pros and cons and make a decision.”
Under Druze religious law, women aren’t allowed to be with men who are not members of their immediate families, except to receive medical treatment. As a corollary, this law has been interpreted as forbidding them to drive. Incidentally, a similar ban applies to senior Druze clerics, but for a different reason – a pious sheikh is supposed to sever himself from material concerns. Because the decision to be religiously observant is an individual choice in the Druze community, over the years, the ban began to apply only to women who have decided to enter the hilwe, or prayer space, and become pious. Other religious Druze men, however, are free to drive.
“In many cases, women beg a man to drive them. That’s the height of humiliation and pain,” said Yakeen Halaby, a 31-year-old religious Druze woman from Daliat al-Carmel who doesn’t drive. “Many women don’t have the ability to go to a doctor on their own, so they do without medical treatment, because they also can’t take public transportation together with male strangers.
“People observing from the outside aren’t aware of the severity of the situation,” she continued. “There are some who say, ‘Our women are queens and we won’t let them drive.’ That’s ridiculous. We aren’t queens. We’re women who work and study and mothers who care about their children. I tell them, let’s trade roles for a year and if you can stand it, we’ll take our hats off to you.
“The fear most Druze have of saying that this is a mistake that has to be fixed has lasted for generations,” she concluded. “Expressing our opinions on this issue is considered unacceptable. If we want to protect women from men, then restrict the men.”
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Eman Khateb Slalha, a 34-year-old traditional Druze woman, also thinks the time has come to let religious women drive. “The Druze religion actually allows full equality between the sexes in divorce, for example,” she said. “But despite the progress and modernization the community has undergone, we haven’t managed to change this decision from the previous century. I think that if the religion is egalitarian in principle, as it presumes to be, there’s no reason to restrict religious women from driving a car, and it should be permitted.”
Watfa Kinaan, a 40-year-old secular Druze woman who heads the informal education program at the aChord Center nonprofit, added, “I’m a divorcee who is raising two youngsters alone, and my job is 120 kilometers [75 miles] from my home, because I chose to seek work far away to expand my opportunities to develop and have an impact. There aren’t a lot of opportunities in the periphery, and without my mobility, I wouldn’t have been able to get where I am today.
“Many religious Druze women have the ability to get ahead,” she added. “But because of their lack of mobility, they can’t develop themselves and they remain trapped.”
At a convention sponsored by the liberal Druze movement last month in Daliat al-Carmel, Druze Knesset member Ali Salalha (Meretz) also expressed opposition to the driving ban. “A driver’s license isn’t meant to constitute a barrier to a Druze woman who wants to be religious. According to the Druze religion, only someone who has carried out an intentional killing or had sexual relations outside of marriage is barred from being accepted as religious,” he said.
“So it’s a fundamentally mistaken decision and there is no right to prevent thousands of Druze women from being religious and driving. The time has come to move forward, to allow our excellent women to blossom and fulfill themselves and not to place barriers in their way. Using a vehicle won’t make women less moral.”
Among many religious Druze women, Sheikh Abu Rish’s surprising remarks, particularly in his official capacity as a religious judge, gave them hope. But most of the religious leadership is still more conservative. Take, for example, the response from the Druze spiritual leader, Sheikh Mowafak Tarif.
“The position on the issue of driver’s licenses for religious women also applies to Druze communities in Lebanon and Syria, as well as to male religious figures who are religiously pious. The reason for the decision that was handed down on the issue decades ago is based on the view that religious men and women who have taken upon themselves to become religious conduct themselves according to strict rules, the most important of which is cutting themselves off from the material world and devoting their time and their lives to the religion,” the spiritual leader said.
“These rules are based on the provisions of religious law that express the need and obligation to only be with members of the same sex, in the community where they live, without any need to be outside the family and community framework,” he said, referring to men and women alike.
“Men and women who are newly religious take the ban on driving upon themselves, as well as additional prohibitions, solely out of their own choice to be religious. The rulings on this issue are constantly being examined, including consultations with adjudicators [of religious law] and serious religious figures, while taking note of the changes taking place in the world. It’s worth noting that the Druze religion provides for equality between men and women in matters of personal status, as well as the right to an education and inheritance, and that the woman is conferred with special status in the religion and in the community in general,” Sheikh Tarif remarked.
Fadi Amun is a participant in Haaretz 21, a project aimed at amplifying underrepresented voices and stories of Arab communities in Israel.