COMMENT: Earlier today, a Saudi woman was sentenced 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 country. 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.
Ironically, the woman's barbaric sentence 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. Needless to say, these could prove to be promises made in good faith, but not fulfilled because the King did not really have the power to authorize them.
King Abdullah said that he had the backing of the official clerical council, yet Tuesday's sentencing is a stark reminder that the hard-line Saudi religious establishment that controls the courts and oversees the Gestapo-like religious police really run the country.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bans women of all nationalities 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.
It should be noted that there are no written or codified written laws against women driving in Saudi Arabia. Rather, the ban is deeply rooted in conservative thinking that holds that giving freedom of movement to women would make them vulnerable to sins. In recent months, dozens of women have led a campaign to try to break the taboo and force new social mores. The campaign's founder, Manal al-Sherif, who posted a video of herself driving on Facebook, was detained for more than 10 days and only released after signing a pledge not to drive or speak to the media again.