Saudi Woman's Lashing Sentence 'Undermines Voting Breakthrough'
Saudi rights groups have claimed that a decision to sentence a woman to 10 lashes for driving her car was payback by the ruling class for this week's landmark speech by King Abdullah, which cleared the way for women to participate in elections.
The sentence is believed to be the first of its kind in Saudi Arabia that has not involved a violation of Islamic law. It was handed down in the wake of around 20 women being arrested over the past few months for taking to the wheel as part of a campaign to showcase their lack of rights in the rigidly conservative society.
On Tuesday it was reported that King Abdullah had intervened to revoke the sentence. The news came in a tweet from Princess Ameerah, wife of billionaire investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.
Earlier the convicted woman, Shaimaa Justaneyah, was reportedly in shock at the sentence. "I cannot think straight because of what I have had to go through," Justaneyah told the website Arab News.
Another female driver, Najla Hariri, is due to stand trial in front of the same prosecutor early next month.
Justaneyah's friend Samar Bedawi, who also drives her car around the Red Sea city of Jeddah, said the sentence undermined the king's speech, which had won plaudits from the international community.
"She is depressed and doesn't want to talk about it, mainly because of the tribal rules which forbid using our names like this in the media," said Bedawi. "She is very scared. The king's speech was intended to quieten the religious current in Saudi Arabia. Both the judges reacted to this and want to show that they clearly hold the reins.
"It was a big breakthrough when the king announced that women could vote … There was joy felt all around the country. But then reality sunk in and it was clear that he was just postponing what should be a basic right by another four years."
Earlier this week the 87-year-old king decreed that women could take part in the next council elections in 2015. However, women will not be able to cast votes in the 2011 ballot, which will be held across Saudi Arabia on Thursday.
Another Jeddah-based woman, Sulafa Kurdi, said the Saudi establishment was fighting back. "They are trying to say that they don't want to give us rights even though the king gave women the right to vote and to join the congress of Saudi Arabia."
The king's announcements have been many years in the making and are expected to meet resistance from a ruling class that is underpinned by a conservative clerical base which staunchly opposes a broader role for women.
The sentence, handed down by a court in Jeddah on Tuesday, was a sharp escalation from earlier punishments handed down to female drivers over the past month. "All of them had to sign statements that they wouldn't do it again," said rights campaigner Waleed Abdul al-Kheir. "This sentence is the first time anything like this has happened."
Justaneyah was arrested around the same time as several other female drivers took to the streets during the summer in a show of defiance that was broadcast around the world and on social media sites. The mini rebellion soon took on the feel of a campaign and tapped into the current of self determination which is sweeping the Middle East as part of the Arab spring.
The themes of the regional revolt, such as popular participation, have resonated with some in Saudi Arabia, where the Muslim holy book, the Qur'an, acts as the constitution, but few had dared to take to the streets to push for change. "The world is mistaken, however, if it thinks the right to drive is our most important demand," said Saudi journalist Rima al-Mukhtar, who has covered the plight of female drivers.
"There are many others that need to be addressed even before that. It's the time for Saudi women to shine, time to start investing in themselves, time to prove that they are up to taking responsibility. It can be done within the parameters of our religion and culture. We must not give ground to those who claim that women's rights are a western intrusion into our way of life."
Several women interviewed said they did not believe the sentence of 10 lashes would be carried out. They said the threat of flogging women for driving was likely to deter many from continuing the campaign to drive. "I would love to continue driving," said Kurdi. "But I don't want to rush back. I have my mother's state of mind to consider."
After handing out plaudits earlier in the week for Saudi Arabia's apparent readiness to allow women a greater role in civic life, international groups have renewed their strident criticism in the wake of the court decision.
"Belatedly allowing women to vote in council elections is all well and good," said Amnesty International's Middle East and north Africa deputy director, Philip Luther. "But if they are still going to face being flogged for trying to exercise their right to freedom of movement then the king's much-trumpeted 'reforms' actually amount to very little."
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