(Updates with activist comment in ninth paragraph.)
Sept. 29 (Bloomberg) -- Saudi King Abdullah revoked a sentence of 10 lashes against a woman who broke a ban on women driving in the kingdom, a Saudi princess said yesterday on her Twitter account.
“Thank God, the lashing of Shaima is canceled,” Princess Amira al-Taweel, wife of billionaire Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, wrote on Twitter. “Thanks to our beloved king. I’m sure all Saudi women will be so happy, I know I am.”
The overruling of the court sentence underscores the friction between Abdullah and the clerics in Saudi society, which is governed by a strict interpretation of Islamic law. The king says he wants to bring women into the workforce as part of an attempt to make the economy less dependent on oil.
On Sept. 25, the king granted women the right to vote for the first time in its modern history as part of changes he said will let them run in future municipal elections. Saudi Arabia refuses “to marginalize the role of women in Saudi society,” Abdullah said in a speech on state television that day.
Saudi women won’t be able to vote until 2015 at the earliest and they are unable to participate in today’s elections for municipal councils.
Two days after the king’s speech, Shaima Jastaniah was sentenced to 10 lashes by a court in Jeddah and another woman was detained in Riyadh.
King Strikes Back
“Saudi clerics are unhappy with the king’s announcement regarding Saudi women and the right to vote,” said Ted Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “The king and Royal Court have been successful at keeping the clerics at bay, but every once in awhile they voice their displeasure. The lashing sentence is an example of this thinking, but the king quickly struck back.”
The king said in his speech that women can now be part of the Shoura Council, his advisory body. Earlier this year, he issued a royal decree requiring that only women work in “shops selling women’s necessities.” The move triggered a Labor Ministry order to lingerie shops and make-up stores to replace
“We welcome and applaud these steps which are in the right direction but call on King Abdullah to follow these steps with abolishing the male guardianship system from Saudi society,” Ibrahim Al Mugaiteeb, president and founder of the Saudi Human Rights First Society, said in an e-mailed statement today.
Abdullah, who was born in 1924, has promised to improve the status of women and opened the first co-educational university in 2009. He appointed the kingdom’s first female deputy minister, Nora bint Abdullah al-Fayez, the same year and has said he will provide women more access to jobs.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, was ranked the least democratic country in the Middle East in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2010 Democracy Index. An absolute monarchy, it has been ruled by six kings since it was established in 1932.
Saudi Arabia enforces gender restrictions interpreted from the Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam. Men and women are strictly segregated in public, including at schools, restaurants and lines at fast-food takeouts. That keeps women out of sales jobs in malls and stores, unless the outlet caters exclusively to a female clientele, and they are also barred from driving.
Women in Saudi Arabia got behind the wheels of their cars in June to challenge the authorities’ refusal to lift the world’s only ban on driving by females. The plan to get women with international driving licenses out in their cars followed a campaign that led to the detention of one of the activists, Manal al-Sharif.
“Alwaleed and I spoke with Shaima,” Princess Amira wrote. “She was happy and she said ‘the king’s orders washed the fears I lived with after this unjust sentence.’”
--With assistance from Sarah Abdullah in Jeddah, Donna Abu Nasr in Manama, Bahrain. Editors: Jennifer M. Freedman, Andrew J. Barden
To contact the reporter on this story: Glen Carey in Riyadh at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at email@example.com