Two days after Saudi King Abdullah’s historic decision to allow women to participate in elections, two Saudi women were punished Tuesday for breaking the ban on female driving: One was sentenced 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, 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 emailed response to questions Tuesday. ”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 $130 billion to prevent the regional unrest from sparking dissent at home.
Some women, inspired by the Arab spring that has led to the fall of the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes and sent the Libyan leader into hiding, have been pushing for change, using social- networking sites. One of their efforts, a campaign called Baladi, calling for female participation in municipal elections, has succeeded.
“Women in Saudi Arabia are leading the Saudi spring,” said Hatoon al-Fassi, one of the Baladi campaigners, in a telephone interview Monday. “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 it seemed as if authorities were turning a blind eye to the women behind the wheel.
A statement from Women2Drive said the woman who was sentenced to the 10 lashes had appeared before 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, Tuesday’s statement said.
“This is completely unacceptable and certainly breaks laws and regulations as well as international treaties that Saudi Arabia has signed,” said the 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 Tuesday. “After I got home, the police came to summon me.” She spent 3 1/2 hours at the station, signed a no-driving pledge and was let go.
Hariri, a 45-year-old Saudi housewife, said she received a call on Sept. 21 summoning her to appear before Jeddah’s prosecutor on Sunday, 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. “I drive out of a need, because I don’t have a driver.”
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.