Days ago, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah announced that Saudi women will have the right to vote and run in municipal elections beginning in 2015. While activists cautiously praised the reform, the fact that women are still not allowed to drive makes Saudi Arabia one of the most oppressive places in the world for women.
Today, it got even worse. Shayma Jastaniah was found guilty of driving and sentenced to ten lashes as punishment. Shayma, who has an international driver’s license, says she was driving a family member to the hospital.
Shayma’s situation - alone at home with a family member who needs medical attention - is far from uncommon. Another Saudi woman, Najalaa al-Harriri, is set to face trial in a month for driving, not out of defiance, but in order to take care of her children and run basic errands. Unable to drive, women are forced to hire drivers - which can be expensive and dangerous - or rely on waiting for male relatives to find the time to drive them around. The ban is not only a daily inconvenience but it has also exposed many women to financial, social and psychological exploitation by their male relatives and drivers.
Activists working to lift the driving ban suspect Shayma’s sentence is a reaction by conservative Saudi judges who feel King Abdullah’s suffrage announcement gives too many rights to women. But the justice system has caved to international pressure before. This summer, Manal al Sharif was arrested for driving as part of a nationwide protest of the ban. After Saudi Women for Driving started a petition and the international community expressed outrage, Manal was released from prison without being charged.
Demand that the charges against Shayma Jastaniah and Najalaa al-Harriri be dropped immediately. No woman should have to face trial and public lashing for driving.