Two days after Saudi King Abdullah’s decision to allow women to participate in elections, two Saudi women were punished for breaking the ban on female driving: One was sentenced to 10 lashes by a court in Jeddah and another was detained in Riyadh.
The incidents highlight the continuing disparity between the rights of men and women in the kingdom. Women may be able to vote and run in the 2015 municipal elections, but they still can’t drive, argue in court before a judge, travel or get an education or a job without male approval.
“Saudi Arabia made the giant leap this week from an F- to an F+ in human rights,” David Keyes, executive director of Advancing Human Rights, said in an e-mailed response to questions on Sept. 27. “It’s unconscionable that in the 21st century a woman cannot drive herself to work, a restaurant or just for the fun of it.”
Saudi Arabia, holder of the world’s biggest oil reserves, has mostly avoided the anti-government demonstrations that have rocked the Arab world this year. The kingdom announced spending plans totaling about 500 billion riyals ($130 billion) to prevent the regional unrest from sparking dissent at home.
Some women, inspired by the Arab revolts that led to the fall of leaders in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, have been pushing for change, using social-networking sites. One of their efforts, a campaign called Baladi, calling for female enfranchisement, partially succeeded with Abdullah’s announcement this week. Still, it failed to lift the ban on women voting in tomorrow’s municipal election.
Leading ‘Saudi Spring’
“Women in Saudi Arabia are leading the Saudi spring,” said Hatoon al-Fassi, one of the Baladi campaigners, in a telephone interview on Sept. 26. “We’re going to push for driving as a next step.”
Another effort, Women2Drive, a campaign that called on women with international drivers’ licenses to break the only ban of its kind in the world and start driving on June 17, also appeared to be making headway until this week. More than 50 women responded to the appeal that day. Several across the kingdom continued to drive and authorities initially seemed to turn a blind eye to the women behind the wheel.
Sheikh Mohammed al-Nujaimi, a Saudi cleric who is a member of the non-governmental Sharia Scholars Institute, said every country punishes infringements of rules. “I haven’t heard about the lashing sentence, but if people violate laws, there will be chaos,” he said in a telephone interview today from Riyadh.
Women2Drive said the woman who was sentenced to 10 lashes had appeared at the Jeddah court twice before the sentencing. Two other women have been called to court, including Najla Hariri, who was forced to sign a pledge not to drive again and is scheduled to appear before a Jeddah court for trial in one month, and another woman who is on trial in the Eastern Province, the group said.
“This is completely unacceptable and certainly breaks laws and regulations as well as international treaties that Saudi Arabia has signed,” Women2Drive said in a Sept. 27 statement. “What is happening is horrifying and must immediately be stopped.”
Madeeha Ajroush, a 58-year-old psychotherapist, said she was detained in Riyadh after driving “to express my joy at the king’s decision.”
“Someone saw me drive and complained to authorities,” Ajroush said in a telephone interview yesterday. “After I got home, the police came to summon me.” She spent 3 1/2 hours at the police station, signed a no-driving pledge and was let go.
Hariri, a 45-year-old housewife, said she received a call on Sept. 21 summoning her to appear before Jeddah’s prosecutor on Sept. 25, the day the king issued his decree.
“My need to drive should not be considered a defiance of the law, the ruler or religion,” said Hariri in a telephone interview from Jeddah on Sept. 27. “I drive out of a need, because I don’t have a driver.”
The latest government actions have led to a suspension of a new initiative that Women2Drive campaigners had hoped would boost their effort: teaching women how to drive. More than 1,500 women had ticked the “learn” box on a confidential form the campaigners sent around by e-mail.
During the summer months, a small group of women looked for neighborhoods where students can practice without getting arrested, compiled instructional material, including how-to videos, for the theoretical part of the course and looked around for female volunteers with valid international licenses.
‘No Written Law’
“There’s no written law that bans women from driving, so how can women drivers be prosecuted?” said Noura Yousef, one of the campaign organizers, in a telephone interview from Jeddah on Sept. 26.
Inrahim Al Mugaiteeb, an activist and president of the Human Rights First Society, said Saudi judges can hand down sentences based on their interpretation of Islamic Sharia law even when there’s no corresponding rule on the country’s statute books. “This is why it’s not uncommon to see sentences given on the same crime, sometimes in the same city, that are radically different,” he said.
Saudi Arabia enforces restrictions interpreted from the Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam. In addition to the restrictions on women, the government enforces strict gender segregations in public, including at restaurants, schools and lines at fast food take-outs.
The last time a group of women publicly defied the driving ban was on Nov. 6, 1990, when U.S. troops massed in Saudi Arabia to prepare for a war that would expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait.