Saudi Woman Sentenced To Lashings After Violating Driving Ban

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A group of activists in Saudi Arabia has launched a campaign to overturn a court ruling against a woman who defied the kingdom's ban on driving by women. The woman was sentenced to 10 lashes with a whip after she defied the ban in her home city on the Red Sea Coast. Melissa Block talks with NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson for the details.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In Saudi Arabia yesterday, a court sentenced a woman to 10 lashes. Her crime: driving a car on the streets of Jeddah in July. Women are banned from driving in the kingdom, although dozens have been flouting that ban in recent months in a bid for more equality and independence.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in the Saudi capital Riyadh, and she joins me now. And, Soraya, tell us more about this woman, what the latest is on her case.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Her name is Shayma. She's asked that we not use her last name because she fears repercussions from her family. They aren't too happy about what happened to her. As you mentioned, she's been sentenced to 10 lashes. She was also fined the equivalent of $130 for driving without a license.

And basically, her crime is one that's not even really on the books here. It's driving. It's something that women are not allowed to do because of societal norms and religious edicts, but it's not a law per se. And so after the sentenced was passed down on Tuesday, her lawyer says that they're appealing.

BLOCK: And if that appeal fails, Soraya, what happens next?

SARHADDI NELSON: Well, it'll take about 30 days to figure out whether the judges will agree to either rescind the sentence, change it or uphold it. And basically what will happen is she will be lashed 10 times. It's something that is very worrying to activists and to women here in Saudi Arabia at a time when they're really struggling to gain their rights.

BLOCK: And this sentence of 10 lashes, Soraya, is it keeping other women from protesting this ban on driving by getting behind the wheel?

SARHADDI NELSON: Well, certainly it's made a lot of them more reluctant to talk to the press about their events and incidents. Many women have been arrested in recent months for trying to drive in protest. And they're still planning to do so, but they're doing it much more secretively than before.

BLOCK: There is a painful irony here, really, in the timing of this, because as we've been reporting, King Abdullah recently spoke about giving women the right to vote, the right to run in municipal elections and serve on his advisory council. There does seem to be a real contradiction here.

SARHADDI NELSON: Absolutely. The activists here have been pointing this out, so has Shayma's lawyer, a man by the name of Adnan Al-Saleh. They asked why it is that when the king is announcing that women are strong enough and have rights enough to be able to run this country - to some extent, a limited extent - that they are not allowed to drive.

The argument is they use computers, and they receive higher education, so it just seems sort of ridiculous that a woman who works, for example, or goes to school has to be driven back and forth. But at this point, the government has not said anything about allowing Saudi women to drive. They blame society. They say that Saudi society is not ready for this. And they have taken a very tough stance on these women, as indicated by the sentence.

BLOCK: Soraya, why is it that the notion of women driving in Saudi Arabia has become such a flashpoint? It's such an issue for the kingdom.

SARHADDI NELSON: Well, this is a country where everyone depends on their vehicles. I mean, there is no public transport per se. And women are not allowed to really go anywhere without a male guardian anyway. And this is just yet another symbol of why it is that they don't feel that they are equal with men here in this country.

Basically, you have women who are going to university, who are working, who are actually achieving economic equality in many ways but yet are forbidden from going anywhere in a car. I mean, they can't even really flag a taxi. That's not considered appropriate for a woman traveling without a male guardian.

And so it's really important to these women to be able to drive their cars. I mean, they just feel that's something they need to be able to do in order to achieve equality here.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson speaking with us from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Soraya, thanks so much.

SARHADDI NELSON: You're welcome.

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