World

Saudi woman's lashing sentence for driving overturned

Saudi King Abdullah has overturned a court ruling sentencing a Saudi woman to be lashed 10 times for defying the kingdom's ban on female drivers, a government official said Wednesday.

Saudi King Abdullah has overturned a court ruling sentencing a Saudi woman to be lashed 10 times for defying the kingdom's ban on female drivers, a government official said Wednesday.

The official declined to elaborate on the monarch's decision, and spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.

A Saudi court on Tuesday found Shaima Jastaina guilty of violating the driving ban, and sentenced her to 10 lashes. The verdict took Saudi women by surprise, coming just a day after King Abdullah promised to protect women's rights and decreed that women would be allowed to participate in municipal elections in 2015.

Abdullah also promised to appoint women to a currently all-male advisory body known as the Shura Council.

The harsh sentence marked the first time a legal punishment had been handed down since female activists began their campaign in June to break the taboo in this ultraconservative Muslim nation.

There are no written laws that restrict women from driving. Rather, the ban is rooted in conservative traditions and religious views that hold giving freedom of movement to women would make them vulnerable to sins.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bans women — both Saudi and foreign — from driving. The prohibition forces families to hire live-in drivers, and those who cannot afford the $300 to $400 a month for a driver must rely on male relatives to drive them to work, school, shopping or the doctor.

Since June, dozens of women have led a campaign to try to break the taboo and impose a new status quo. The campaign's founder, Manal al-Sherif, who posted a video of herself driving on Facebook, was detained for more than 10 days. She was released after signing a pledge not to drive or speak to media.

Since then, women have been appearing in the streets driving their cars once or twice a week.

More women referred to trial

Until Tuesday, none had been sentenced by the courts. But recently, several women have been summoned for questioning by the prosecutor general and referred to trial.

One of them, housewife Najalaa al-Harriri, drove only two times, not out of defiance, but out of need, she says.

"I don't have a driver. I needed to drop my son off at school and pick up my daughter from work," she said over the phone from the western port city of Jeddah.

"The day the king gave his speech, I was sitting at the prosecutor's office and was asked why I needed to drive, how many times I drove and where," she said. She is to stand trial in a month.

After the king's announcement about voting rights for women, Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti Abdel Aziz Al Sheik blessed the move and said, "It's for women's good."

Al-Harriri, who is one of the founders of a women's rights campaign called "My Right My Dignity," said, "It is strange that I was questioned at a time the mufti himself blessed the king's move."

Asked if the sentencing will stop women from driving, Maha al-Qahtani, another female activist, said, "This is our right, whether they like it or not."

now