Nearly a year after she was arrested for defying the law banning women from driving, Shaima Jastaniah has finally won a reprieve from her sentence.
Jastaniah was one of many Saudi women who got behind the wheel last summer to protest the archaic law forbidding women from driving, which is both a symbol and embodiment of the country's harsh treatment of its women. That September, she was sentenced to a punishment as barbaric as the law it was enforcing: ten lashes. Later that month, Princess Ameerah al-Taweel, the wife of King Abdallah's influential nephew, tweeted that the king had pardoned Jastaniah, which was broadly taken as true.
In December, Texas-based academic Nivien Saleh, who was Jastaniah's professor when she studied in the U.S., reported at TheAtlantic.com that she was to be lashed despite the pardon. By then, she had become a symbol not just of Saudi women defiantly fighting for their rights, but of the opaque and often arbitrary Saudi justice system. The police told her, pardon or no, she was scheduled to be flogged for daring to drive.
Saleh, who had become close with her former student, now writes to announce that Jastaniah will be spared. The good news came during one of their regular phone conversations. Earlier this month, "Shaima [Jastaniah] received a call from the Jeddah Police Department demanding that she come in for fingerprinting," Saleh told me over email. "At the police station, she was told that her lashing sentence had been dropped, not in response to the petition filed by her attorneys (nor the international attention caused by the Atlantic story, for that matter), but because the police department itself had filed a routine petition for pardon, which was accepted."
In other words, the police in Jeddah, Jastaniah's hometown, are insisting that it was entirely their idea to drop the lashing. Saleh added that her lawyers, which have been working to save her from the whip since September, "are convinced that it was their petition that brought this positive outcome into being." Either way, after months of wondering if she would be whipped for the simple act of driving, the uncertainty itself must have become a burden, and one imagines it is a relief for her to put it behind her.
Still, the police warned Jastaniah that she would be lashed if she drove again. "When fingerprinting Shaima, the police told her that she now had a police record detailing how she had broken the laws of the country. The record would have no negative consequences for her ability to be employed. But if she drove a second time, she would indeed be lashed," Saleh explained. "Shaima's attorneys are confident that they will be able to get her police record expunged."
So it's not all good news: the driving ban is still in place, as is the law encouraging police to beat women like pack animals for committing the "crime" of driving down the street. But this one woman appears to have outmaneuvered the Saudi police and escaped their whips. That's what passes for justice in today's Saudi Arabia.
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