A Saudi Arabian woman whose sentence of ten lashes for driving was initially pardoned by King Abdullah in September could still face flogging, even after no one less than Princess Ameerah al-Taweel, wife of King Abdallah’s billionaire nephew Al-Waleed Ibn Talal and a longstanding champion of women’s right to drive, announced on Twitter in September that she would not face such a cruel punishment.
In July, Shaima Jastaniah was arrested for driving in the coastal city of Jeddah. A number of Saudi women had sought to break the ban on women driving in June by getting behind the wheel, after computer security consultant Manal al-Sharif not only drove but videotaped herself doing so and uploaded the video to YouTube. Sharif was imprisoned for several days in May and released on bail, on the grounds that she not drive, not talk to the media and return for questioning as requested.
On November 12, Jastaniah was served with legal notice that she will be flogged, a humiliating and painful punishment, unless she wins a legal appeal on December 12. Jastaniah’s sentence was notably harsh. The usual police response if a woman drives and is stopped is that she must sign a pledge not to “misbehave” again. While some women have driven and signed the pledge more than a few times, Jastaniah’s case was referred to Saudi Arabia’s conservative shariah court system and a judge ordered the sentence of ten lashes for what should have been considered a misdemeanor with a fine. But Jastaniah’s driving is being treated as a criminal act.
On September 28, it had seemed that Jastaniah would be pardoned for driving after Princess Ameerah al-Taweel on Twitter declared, after her husband had spoken to the King on behalf of Jastaniah,
“#women2drive Thank God, the lashing of Shaima is cancelled. Thanks to our beloved King. I’m sure all Saudi women will be so happy, I know I am.”
That tweet was the “most official statement of royal pardon” that Jastaniah received. But the Kingdom’s clerics have apparently taken no notice of it. Writing in The Atlantic, Nivien Saleh takes up Jastaniah’s case and from a very personal angle. Saleh teaches Middle Eastern politics at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, and Jastaniah was her student and friend while studying in the university’s Master of Liberal Arts Program.
Shaima fit right into Houston society. Texans are larger than life, and so is she. Discard your images of the veiled female Arab: Her dedication to Islam is sincere — she recently completed the hajj to Mecca — but she is not demure and does not attempt to fade into the background. When she enters a room, you notice.
Though she is not one to seek the limelight, Shaima freely speaks up in front of others when an issue matters to her. And she has strong ideas of what is just and fair.
There is no doubt that her time in Houston changed her. I saw her grow intellectually and come to recognize that, deep inside, she was a passionate individualist who saw life as full of possibilities.
After living from 2000 – 2010 in Houston, Jastaniah returned to Saudi Arabia. She was no longer married and was living again with her parents. She brought back not only a college degree but also a black BMW. But, as Saleh writes:
… even with her international driver’s license, she is not allowed to drive the SUV there. Instead, she has to employ a male chauffeur, who is a stranger to her. As she is now gainfully employed, her parents leave it up to her to pay the driver’s salary. That renders her inability to steer the vehicle doubly galling, she says. In her view, the prohibition against female driving has nothing to do with Islam and everything with the maintenance of patriarchal rule. After all, did Aysha, the favorite wife of the Prophet Muhammad, not ride her own camel into the Battle of Basrah in 656?
Saleh details Jastaniah’s waning options: She can “submit and take her lashing,” or take one of two legal routes, hire a local counsel and quietly attempt to appeal and obtain another royal pardon, or, in what would be a far more public act, “hire an international human rights counsel who could take the case to a foreign tribunal under international law.” Saleh says that some local feminists are calling on Jastaniah to seek the latter option which could potentially lead to some very high-profile media attention. As Jastaniah said in a phone call to Saleh,
“I want to be able to drive, just like I did back in the States,” she told me. “And I want other women to be able to do the same. It’s a basic human right.”
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