King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has cancelled a sentence to flog a woman for defying the country's ban on women driving, according to multiple reports in news outlets including Al Arabiya television and Forbes. Shaima Jastania was sentenced by a court in the coastal city of Jeddah to 10 lashes after she was found guilty of driving without permission, as we reported earlier this week.
"Thank God, the lashing of Shaima is cancelled," tweeted Princess Ameerah Al-Taweel, wife of Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. "Thanks to our beloved King. I'm sure all Saudi women will be so happy, I know I am."
Back in July, the princess spoke to NPR's Morning Edition and said Saudi women deserve broader rights including the right to drive a car, a right they have been long denied.
Her husband, Prince Alwaleed told Forbes magazine earlier today that the lashing sentence was "barbaric and inhuman." He added that "It's clear some backward-tinkling elements in the Saudi society want to harm the King's name."
This is not the first time the Saudi monarch intervened to cancel a court sentence that caused embarrassment to the conservative kingdom. In 2007, King Abdullah pardoned a 19-year-old rape victim who was sentenced to 200 lashes and several months in prison.
We spoke over the phone with activist Rasha al-Duwisi, who said she "knew this was going to happen." But she added that this is not enough. The judge must be disciplined, she said, and women should no longer be dragged to court for driving.
"I'm not very thrilled that we have to go all the way to the King to intervene and cancel sentences like this," she said.
The king made a surprising decision last Sunday when he announced that women will be allowed to vote and run in the municipal elections, and that they will also be appointed to the consultative Shoura Council.
That's why the lashing sentence, coming less than two days after the king's announcement, was seen as a setback by activists. "Disastrous" is the word one activist used to describe the situation for women's rights in the country, despite the royal announcement.
Women in Saudi Arabia are subject to a male guardianship system, which requires they show proof of permission from their guardian — father, brother or husband — to travel, work, or sometimes receive medical treatment at a hospital. The king's decision to allow women to vote and run for elections raised questions over the system such as: are women going to be allowed to participate in elections without their guardian's permission? The same with driving: will women need permission from their guardian to apply for a license?
"Everything goes back to the male guardianship system," activist and journalist Ebtihal Mubarak said. She added that the Saudi government has promised the United Nations' Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women three years ago to work on women empowerment and inclusion in society, but no concrete steps have been taken to achieve that.
Therefore, she said, giving women the right to vote without lifting the guardianship system is not worth much.
"It is like giving a slave the right to choose his master," Mubarak said.
Ahmed Al Omran is an intern with NPR's social media desk. He's blogged from Saudi Arabia since 2004, until he came stateside to attend Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.