Image: Saudi women walk past cars
Hasan Jamali  /  AP
Saudi women walk past cars in a Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, street.
By
updated 9/27/2011 4:05:19 PM ET 2011-09-27T20:05:19

A Saudi woman was sentenced Tuesday to be lashed 10 times with a whip for defying the kingdom's prohibition on female drivers, the first time a legal punishment has been handed down for a violation of the longtime ban in the ultraconservative Muslim nation.

Normally, police just stop female drivers, question them and let them go after they sign a pledge not to drive again. But dozens of women have continued to take to the roads since June in a campaign to break the taboo.

Story: Saudi king: Women will be able to vote in municipal elections

Making Tuesday's sentence all the more upsetting to activists is that it came just two days 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 mixed signals highlight the challenge for Abdullah, known as a reformer, in pushing gently for change without antagonizing the powerful clergy and a conservative segment of the population.

Retaliation?
Abdullah said he had the backing of the official clerical council. But activists saw Tuesday's sentencing as a retaliation of sorts from the hard-line Saudi religious establishment that controls the courts and oversees the intrusive religious police.

"Our king doesn't deserve that," said Sohila Zein el-Abydeen, a prominent female member of the governmental National Society for Human Rights. She burst into tears in a phone interview and said, "The verdict is shocking to me, but we were expecting this kind of reaction."

The driver, Shaima Jastaina, in her 30s, was found guilty of driving without permission, activist Samar Badawi said. The punishment is usually carried out within a month. It was not possible to reach Jastaina, but Badawi, in touch with Jastaina's family, said she appealed the verdict.

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.

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.

Activists say the religious justification is irrelevant.

"How come women get flogged for driving while the maximum penalty for a traffic violation is a fine, not lashes?" Zein el-Abydeen said. "Even the Prophet (Muhammad's) wives were riding camels and horses because these were the only means of transportation."

Campaign to break taboo
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.

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."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Saudi Arabia to allow women to vote in 2015

  1. Closed captioning of: Saudi Arabia to allow women to vote in 2015

    >>> overseas tonight there's pretty revolutionary news from saudi arabia . widely seen as one of the most repressive places on earth for women . they may be seeing the handwriting on the wall . women have been given the right to vote starting four years from now. our report tonight from stephanie gosk.

    >> reporter: it is the birth place of islam, and governed by one of the strictest interpretations of muslim law in the world. change in saudi arabia happened slowly, but it's happening. for the first time in this country's history, king abdullah has given women the right to vote and run for political office . women can't actually go to the polls until 2015 , and the elected council has little power over king abdullah . supporter of women 's rights say this is a significant step.

    >> it is seen as a real commitment in terms of leadership, to ensuring women 's power in the future.

    >> reporter: women in saudi arabia can't leave the house without being fully covered and accompanied by a male guardian, regardless of their age. they aren't even allowed to drive. dozens of saudi activists got behind the wheel last june. one of the organizers now faces a criminal trial. the driving law hasn't changed, but king abdullah seems to have gotten the message.

    >> the arab revolution, plus technological change , and women leaders fighting for their rights has all come together at a unique moment in time.

    >> reporter: the king has raised salaries for government workers, increased unemployment benefits and housing. now that women have a voice, the calls for more change may grow even louder. stephanie gosk, nbc news, london.

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