A woman in Saudi Arabia was reportedly sentenced to 150 lashes and eight months in jail this week for driving a car and fighting the policemen who arrested her.
It appears that the severity of the sentence was due to her resistance. There has been no official confirmation or acknowledgement from the Kingdom and the woman’s name has not been released.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are forbidden to drive.
Protests against the ban have been gradually gaining momentum over the past few years. Earlier this year Thoraya Obaid, a female member of the Shura council, called for gender equality at a Women’s Month event. The Shura council is an advisory body to the Saudi king. Activists have also petitioned the king to end the system of male guardianship as well as to allow women to drive.
The Women2Drive movement was started in 2011 by activist Manal Sharif. Women with foreign driving licenses were encouraged to take to the streets in their cars as part a civil disobedience campaign. Despite threats and intimidation by authorities, activists have refused to cease their efforts.
Driving is only one of the many restrictions imposed on women in Saudi Arabia. There is no civil code, all laws are derived from judicial interpretations of sharia and the autocratic decrees of the King, who is an absolute monarch. The system of male guardianship, which prevents women from working, travelling and studying amongst other things without the permission of her closest male relative, is perhaps the most restrictive. It perpetuates a system in which women are effectively legal minors. Dr Elham Manea described it as ‘gender apartheid.’
Progress remains slow and it is not known how many people support the right of women to drive. One opinion piece in the Saudi Gazette supported repealing the ban, but only due to fears that women would be raped by their foreign drivers. The King made a series of concessions to human rights earlier this year, agreeing "in principle" to reforms, but critics remain sceptical. The Guardian commneted that the rebrand was “fooling no-one.”
Opposition from conservative elements remain strong. Last year a prominent Saudi cleric declared that women would damage their ovaries if they drove. As for his part, King Abdullah himself has kept four of his daughters imprisoned in a royal compound in the coastal city of Jeddah for the past 13 years.