On the lashing sentence of a Saudi woman driver “The Guardian piece”
September 29, 2011 1 Comment
This is the original piece I’ve sent to the Guardian before publishing, the link to the published article is at the end
In a sudden turn of events, Shaimaa Justaneyah, one of the female drivers who challenged the ban on women driving in Saudi, was sentenced to 10 lashes in Jeddah city of Saudi Arabia. The paradoxical verdict came shortly after a historical royal decree to grant Saudi women suffrage rights. Shaimaa’s case was being tried for months; she witnessed three hearings already with her male guardian before she finally received the verdict. By keeping a low profile and avoiding media or activists’ attention, she hoped to sign a simple warranty not to drive, as customary, at the end. Her tactic was aimed to avoid retaliations by authorities or worse, to avoid getting accusations of incitement against the country, a charge that is not uncommon against activists with worse outcomes. Receiving the dramatic sentence, Shaimaa finally contacted the women2drive coordinators; they immediately issued a statement about her case that travelled all over the world from their websites and social networks. The statement was followed by an online open letter to King Abdullah to look into the outrageous sentence. The case of Shaimaa was being filed for appeal. The news of the sentence dimmed the celebratory spirit of the historical royal decrees and sent obvious messages to Saudi women that their struggle toward their basic rights is yet in the infancy stage, at least on the legal front.
Shaimaa is not alone, another woman in Jeddah, Mrs. Najla Hariri, who used to drive repeatedly in Jeddah due to the absence of a driver, was also called for questioning and facing a similar case with unknown outcomes. Currently, there is no feedback from the government on the issue of women driving. The sentence of 10 lashes fired resentments on social networks and international news pieces. A royal member, Princess Amera Al-Taweel, finally tweeted brief statement on a royal pardon by the king. The pardon was later confirmed by a published story on Forbes.
Historically, the case for women driving has been raised by women activists repeatedly in the past twenty years, receiving various consequences on activists ranging from banning from travel or jobs, detention, and defamation. The ten days detention of the activist Manal Al-Shareef at the beginning of her driving initiative ended abruptly by a direct intervention from the King. She resumed her activism after a short period of inactivity following the detention. The driving initiative received support from local and international groups and praised by encouraging statements from top women leaders across the world including Clinton and Ashton. Driving right is viewed by Saudi women as a basic need that would empower hundreds who currently rely on the availability of drivers or male relatives to commute. Most of women affected are those from lower to middle class families or working women. Recruitment of drivers is not formally granted to women but to their male relatives, making the issue more complicated for women who are not supported by capable male relatives or for women who can’t accommodate drivers in their homes. The inconvenience created by the restriction on women movements granted a high response rate for the women driving initiative. It is believed that the simple step of allowing women the right to drive would enable greater number of women to enroll in jobs or education and would ease the financial burden on many families with limited income. It is not understood why the ban still exist despite the repeated calls to lift it. The official religious scholars who usually oppose the calls for women empowerment on any level are shown to be the first to comply if the alleviation is decreed by the king. Observers have noticed the quick change of hearts of the hard-line scholars when the King decided to open the first Co-Ed University and when he granted women the suffrage rights. All it takes usually is a royal decree to correct any opposition or ill verdicts. The opposition to women driving in Saudi has been focused on issues such as priorities of women rights, gradual changes of status-quo, and preparing the infra-structure to ensure no gender mixing takes effect. Yet, all those claims are easily challenged by the presence of many Saudi sectors were women are served by male officials as in hospitals, governments offices, courts, and airports, without any notable problems. Saudi women rights have been at the tail of the reforms list for many decades. In celebrating the 81st anniversary of Saudi Arabia, overdue decrees would be allowing women the basic rights of commute and lifting the guardianship law restrictions, and perhaps then they can exercise effectively the promised suffrage rights. A face-saving leap would be to bring forward the legal system to the 21st century, where royal decrees are no longer required to usher necessary justice.