Shaima Jastaniah had become a symbol of Saudi Arabia's movement for female driving rights
An unidentified Saudi woman in Jeddah poses to illustrate driving a car / Reuters
Remember Shaima Jastaniah, the Saudi woman who made international headlines in September by being condemned to ten lashes for driving a car through the coastal city of Jeddah? King Abdallah pardoned her personally. But it now turns out that she may be lashed after all.
On Saturday, November 12, she was served with an official notice that, notwithstanding the royal pardon, she will be flogged unless she wins a legal appeal in mid-December. She has kept this private, hoping to resolve it quietly, until now. Her quiet options seemingly exhausted, Shaima called me and asked me to help tell her story. "I want to be able to drive, just like I did back in the States," she told me. "And I want other women to be able to do the same. It's a basic human right."
Her only offense was driving while female. In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where women are not allowed behind the steering wheel, this is a serious breach of public order.
Although Shaima now lives in Jeddah, she had spent many years in Houston, Texas, where she became my student and friend. In 2000, at age 23, she arrived with her husband, who worked towards a license in accounting, and two young children. In 2007, she enrolled in the Master of Liberal Arts program at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, concentrating in international studies, because she wanted to understand the values, dynamics, and contradictions of Middle Eastern countries. I taught her in four courses and came to know her well.
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Shaima fit right into Houston society. Texans are larger than life, and so is she. Discard your images of the veiled female Arab: Her dedication to Islam is sincere -- she recently completed the hajj to Mecca -- but she is not demure and does not attempt to fade into the background. When she enters a room, you notice.
Though she is not one to seek the limelight, Shaima freely speaks up in front of others when an issue matters to her. And she has strong ideas of what is just and fair.
There is no doubt that her time in Houston changed her. I saw her grow intellectually and come to recognize that, deep inside, she was a passionate individualist who saw life as full of possibilities.
Her marriage, which had been arranged, did not survive her personal development. In 2010, when she returned to Saudi Arabia, diploma in hand, she was on her own. As is customary in situations like hers, she moved back in with her parents.
In Houston, Shaima drove a luxurious black BMW X5, which she shipped back to the Kingdom upon her return. But even with her international driver's license, she is not allowed to drive the SUV there. Instead, she has to employ a male chauffeur, who is a stranger to her. As she is now gainfully employed, her parents leave it up to her to pay the driver's salary. That renders her inability to steer the vehicle doubly galling, she says. In her view, the prohibition against female driving has nothing to do with Islam and everything with the maintenance of patriarchal rule. After all, did Aysha, the favorite wife of the Prophet Muhammad, not ride her own camel into the Battle of Basrah in 656?
On a sweltering summer day at noon, the Texan in Shaima came out. Longing for some time alone, she grabbed her keys, fired up her BMW, and drove off. Three hours later, the authorities stopped her.
In Saudi Arabia, when a woman is caught driving, the typical police response is to extract a signed pledge not to "misbehave" a second time and let her go. There are a few women who broke the prohibition against driving several times and pledged betterment again and again. Shaima's case, however, never went through that stage. The matter was immediately referred to the country's conservative shariah court system, which is controlled by the Kingdom's religious establishment.
The judge happened to pass his verdict on the heels of a government announcement that, five years from now, women will receive the right to vote and run for public office. Possibly to register his disapproval, possibly to discourage the other women who had recently taken to the road, or maybe for some other reason, the judge assigned the unusually harsh sentence of flogging. Shaima was shocked. "What I did was a misdemeanor. The court could have fined me, and I would have been happy to pay up," she told me. "Instead, they decided to criminalize me. I am not a criminal!"
In keeping with judicial protocol, the judge asked if she planned to appeal. She said yes. He explained that upon receiving a copy of the verdict, she would have 30 days to register her appeal with the Court of Cassation.
Then came the tweet. On September 28, Princess Ameerah al-Taweel, wife of King Abdallah's billionaire nephew Al-Waleed Ibn Talal and a longstanding champion of women's right to drive, declared, "#women2drive Thank God, the lashing of Shaima is cancelled. Thanks to our beloved King. I'm sure all Saudi women will be so happy, I know I am." Her husband had spoken to the King on Shaima's behalf. In Saudi Arabia's tribal society, where wasta -- which loosely translates to "connections" -- is everything, this should have been enough to close the case. But it wasn't.
As Shaima told me, this tweet was the most official statement of royal pardon that she received. Whether the Kingdom's clerics are consciously snubbing King Abdallah's second-hand declaration or whether they lack the digital awareness to appreciate Twitter as a means of policymaking is unclear. But the tweet left them unfazed.
Shaima received a copy of the verdict in November, and unless she successfully appeals the sentence by December 12, it will be administered. Not only is the punishment painful, it is also humiliating to her and to all Saudi women who believe that a right to education should go hand in hand with freedom of movement.
But her options are limited. She might submit and take her lashing, hire local counsel who could quietly attempt to both appeal and obtain another royal pardon, or hire an international human rights counsel who could take the case to a foreign tribunal under international law. A small circle of local feminists is encouraging her to spearhead their movement, however fledgling it may be, by alerting the media. But that would mean becoming the center of attention in a country where hierarchy is respected and opposition regarded with suspicion.
When she asked for my advice, I turned to a friend with knowledge of the country, who said: "Her options boil down to two strategies: She can either hire a local lawyer and bow and scrape; or she can go nuclear by dishing this to the international press."
Shaima Jastaniah is no scraper.
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