UPDATE, 8:40 pm EST, September 28, 2011: Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has overturned the woman’s sentence of 10 lashes, according to an unofficial report.
A Saudi Arabian woman, identified only as Shema, has been sentenced to ten lashes for defying the country’s ban on women driving in the city of Jeddah in July. Women2drive, which is campaigning to overturn the ban, said that Shema has already placed an appeal. Her sentence was made public just two days after Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud had announced that women in the most conservative Arab country will be given the right to vote and to run in municipal elections in 2015.
Said Philip Luther, an Amnesty International regional deputy director:
“Flogging is a cruel punishment in all circumstances but it beggars belief that the authorities in Saudi Arabia have imposed lashes on a woman apparently for merely driving a car.”
“Allowing women to vote in council elections is all well and good, 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.”
In addition, Najla Hariri and several other women will face a trial in a month for driving in Jeddah in June as part of a mass driving protest. Dozens of women challenged the driving ban when Manal al-Sharif, an IT expert, was detained for more than 10 days after posting a video of herself driving on the internet. Al-Sharif also called for a June 17 mass driving protest. She was released after she signed a pledge not to drive again or to speak to reporters but scores of women still participated in the mass drive. Indeed, Hariri and several other women have driven since then and Hariri has also started a campaign, “My Right, My Dignity,” to end all forms of discrimination against women.
Women who have been stopped by police for driving are usually held until a male guardian is summoned, after which the women must sign a pledge not to drive again; some are then told to appear in court. Hariri and another activist, Samar Badawi, had refused to sign the pledge when they were detained at a police station three weeks ago and contend that there is “no legal basis” for bringing the to trial. As Badawi points out,
…she has been driving every two or three days in Jeddah since June and has not had a problem. The port city is notably more liberal than the capital, Riyadh, and other parts of the country.
“We are marginalised in very basic rights,” said Badawi, who was sentenced to six months in prison for disobeying her father. “They think that by giving us some political rights, we will be pleased and shut up.”
There is no actual law in Saudi Arabia banning women from driving but citizens are required to have a locally issued license; as these are not issued to women — both Saudis and foreigners — they are in effect unable to drive. Women must hire a driver for $300 to $400 a month or rely on male relatives to drive them.
While gaining the right to vote and for two women to serve on the advisory, and currently all male, Shura Council, the list of what women in Saudi Arabia cannot do without a mahram or male guardian is long. With a mahram’s approval, they cannot work, marry, divorce, travel, be admitted to a public hospital or live independently. Even more, “men can beat women who do not obey them and fathers or brothers have the right to prevent female relatives from getting married if they do not approve of her suitor.”
Activists contend that the trials expose a “gap between the image the kingdom wants to show to the outside world and the reality.” Says activist Aboul Khair, who has been referred to court a number of times for challenging the legal restrictions on women:
“Saudi Arabia has always had two kinds of rhetoric, one for outside consumption to improve the image of the kingdom and a more restrictive one that accommodates the religious establishment inside.”
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Photo taken in the Saudi Arabian city of Gizan by Retlaw Snellac